During this period the prevailing style was Neoclassicism, inspired by recent archaeological discoveries of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. There was an increasing emphasis on comfort and privacy. Fashionable homes had more and more objects, many of them designed for specific activities such as writing, reading or drinking. The propaganda of the French Revolution appeared on luxury goods as well as posters and other media. When Napoleon came to power, he too used art and design to proclaim his rule and the supremacy of France.
From the 1750s, Neoclassicism revolutionised architecture and design, becoming the leading international style. Writers, patrons, artists and craftsmen were inspired by the archaeological discoveries of ancient Greece and Rome, particularly at Herculaneum and Pompeii. They sometimes made faithful copies of ancient art, but more often used it as a source of subject matter and inspiration. Some Neoclassical work is severe, while other pieces have a light and decorative quality.
Video: Neoclassicism in Russia
This film shows how the prevailing Neoclassical style was adopted by Catherine the Great in Russia in the late 18th century.
Video: The Roentgen Commode
The film shows the craftsmanship and technology of a Neoclassical commode by the German cabinetmaker David Roentgen.
Informal entertainment in a wealthy, fashionable home was enjoyed both alone and in company, when family and friends spent time together reading, writing, sewing or playing games. Reading, sometimes out loud, could be morally improving as well as entertaining. Spinning and embroidery demonstrated a woman’s manual dexterity, as well as her refinement. Card games provided a sociable opportunity to reveal a different sort of skill.
Fashionable goods reached most corners of Europe by the late 18th century. They were used alongside items made following centuries-old local traditions, especially in remote areas. Today, many of these regional designs are national symbols. Local factors influenced the techniques, pattern and form of dress, jewellery and household goods. Climate, access to materials and proximity to trade routes, as well as the religion and culture of the region, all had an impact.
During the 1780s, the scientific innovation of balloon flight caught the popular imagination. The first ascent with passengers was in a balloon constructed by the Montgolfier brothers, which took off from Versailles near Paris on 21 November 1783. The ascent was quickly followed by other pioneering flights. These flights inspired imitators and innovators across Europe to take to the air.
The intense public enthusiasm for ballooning prompted the commercial and domestic production of numerous fashionable objects featuring balloons.
Towards the end of the 18th century, Europe was gripped by ‘Anglomania’, a love of all things English. In formal men’s attire this could be seen in a taste for simple, close-fitting cut and fine woollen cloth in sombre colours. In women’s fashion the robe à l’anglaise (or English-style dress), characterised by its close-fitting back, was fashionable across Europe in the 1770s and ‘80s.
The royal courts of Europe dictated a dress code of formal silk suits for men, worn with lace accessories and jewelled swords. French court suits were most desirable. They were made for export to countries including Russia and Spain, even during the French Revolution. Napoleon’s imperial court revived the etiquette of dress from before the Revolution. High-waisted gowns continued in vogue, using a variety of fabrics suited to the formality of different occasions.
The French Revolution of 1789 led to the abolition of the monarchy, the establishment of the country’s first republic and the execution of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette. Dramatised and often idealised, these turbulent political events were frequently represented in art. Revolutionary images and mottoes on a variety of goods suggested the political allegiances of those who bought and displayed such wares in their homes.
The French Revolution created difficult conditions for many of the artists and craftsmen who had benefited from royal and noble patronage. Most aristocratic and church collections were confiscated and sold off, or even destroyed. Royal factories were nationalised and guilds abolished. The production of luxury goods did not stop, however, and a new iconography alluding to Republican and egalitarian values emerged in the decorative arts.
Napoleon had himself crowned emperor in 1804. Like Louis XIV, he made the decorative and fine arts central to his new image. Patronage from the imperial court revived French manufacturing, and the production of luxury goods became an expression of French supremacy. The Empire style was characterised by simple, bold design, luxurious materials and rich colours, with ornament and design that linked it to the great civilisations of the past.
A Gift for the Duke of Wellington
This service and an accompanying centrepiece were a gift to the Duke of Wellington from the Portuguese nation. The gift celebrated the alliance between Britain, Spain and Portugal, and the liberation of Spain and Portugal from Napoleon’s occupying forces during the Peninsular War (1808–14). The service was designed and made under the supervision of the Portuguese court painter. Its design was heavily influenced by the Empire style popularised by Napoleon and adopted by courts all over Europe.