Lovely to Look at: Ornamentation and Function in the Era Of Imperial Privilege

The 1700s were a time of enormous change all over Europe, and in North America as well. The restored appreciation of Classical, pre-Christian achievements, which had begun and flowered in the Renaissance, continued to influence all parts of life and culture.

The European world had, in a matter of a few generations, dramatically expanded. It had expanded outward geographically through the discovery and colonization of a heretofore unknown (to them) continent bursting with resources and potential for the creation of wealth and opportunity for free exercise of religious conscience.

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It had also expanded inwardly, turning the focus of philosophers onto individual autonomy and on rationality rather than depending unquestioningly on religious authority and superstition. The 18th century was, not unexpectedly, the first to christen itself with a special name: the Enlightenment, Aufklarung, and the time of the Illuminati. Kant articulated for his contemporaries the spirit of the time:

“For Kant, enlightenment signified knowledge, specifically self-knowledge. Knowledge implied an understanding of human nature as well as the uses to which that knowledge can be put” (Kreis).

The countries of Europe were reaching out to gain and consolidate control of far distant places and people, and the riches they could send back. They were in contact, even if only by proxy, with a wider variety of cultures than at any time in their own history; interacting (not always civilly) with indigenous peoples from Central and South America, India, Southeast Asia, Africa, and so forth.

This global trade and governance demanded far more sophistication in financial instruments and institutions, ships and navigation [1] (Gasciogne). Science was becoming a its own legitimate area of study, rather than merely a sub-category of religion, with dramatic advances as a result.[2]

The wealth that was accruing to the privileged classes was spent on an ever growing elaboration of dress, household appurtenances, and decorative objects for the glory of God, and largely by noblemen. Art and ornamentation was now being displayed outside church and chapel, with subject matter well beyond the sacred.

It was also increasingly within financial reach of more than solely the Medici. This was at least in part because labor saving innovations made craft items more affordable. Accordingly, a wide range of wealthy folk newly entered the market as consumers of fine and decorative arts.

The appreciation of beauty and the exercise of discernment in taste became goals in and of themselves, rather than being sidebars to the glorification of God and the church.

The discernment of beauty became yet another science, an area of rational inquiry and discussion (Hume, Treatise on Human Nature, Volume 2, as quoted 66-67) (W. Hogarth 75-78) (Shaftesbury 63) Like swordsmanship, or a foreign language, “judgement” was presented as a skill that could be learned (Hume, Four Dissertations, as quoted 66-67), and which would improve from being tutored and from being exercised (Burke 67-68). Even the portrayal of emotion could be placed on a scientific footing (Le Brun 161-163)[3].

The acquisition of colonies meant, for some, a new option for recreation and edification. Travel had previously been somewhat limited to those with a purpose such as missionary work, trade, or diplomacy.

More people, in more variety, than ever before now undertook travel, both to the traditional destinations of the artistic capitols of Europe (Banks 103-104), or the sites of classical antiquity (Kennedy 96-99)[4], but with greater frequency, much farther afield, for example to Asia (Chambers 293-304) (Bruce)[5]. These more democratic voyagers and their correspondents at home created a whole new industry as they sought out and assembled collections of antiquities, art, and curiosities (Parker 99-101) (Banks 103-104)[6].

The foibles of this sort of often-naive collector, and the quondam jackals who preyed on them (Jones 101-103), were prime fodder for critics, also a fairly new job description[7] (Hogarth 79).

This expenditure on the products of craftspeople and service providers was seen as an obligation of the wealthy (Hillwood Museum and Gardens). This conspicuous and vigorous consumption fostered the development of more centralized manufacturing facilities, which encouraged the centralization of population, and the rise of successful entrepreneurs.

However, the disparities in wealth and power were a growing source of unrest. The American colonies responded to what they declared was an unfair and excessive siphoning off of the profits of the colonists by declaring independence. The peasant population of France, less than a generation later, responded to the arrogation of the products of their labor by the noble classes, by a generous application of the guillotine, and setting up a government to replace the monarchy. By the end of the century, the known world looked quite different.

Art followed the political and intellectual tendencies of the time. The first half of the century was a time of Neo-classicism with an admiration for balance, order, and serenity (Lessing 351-353) [8]. The second half of the 1700’s was characterized by a movement towards heroic individualism, and appeals to the emotions, often called Romanticism.

Decoration, as an end in itself, was valued highly in 18th century France, as evidenced by the fact that Antoine Watteau was sent by one of his mentors to work with, and for, Claude Ardran, in Luxembourg. Ardran is described by Watteau’s cataloguer and biographer, Jean de Jullienne, as an “excellent painter of decoration” (de Jullienne 307).

This is revealing, because Watteau’s life story certainly suggests that he aspired to, and thought of himself as, a fine artist, insofar as that category existed at the time.

Even though he started out painting stage sets, he took every opportunity to improve his technique (de Jullienne 306), and absorb, through close study, the best in admired works of art housed in the collections of the wealthy (de Jullienne 307, 308). Yet, apprenticeship to an artist who painted decoration was considered appropriate. Artists who created decoration were clearly held in esteem.

The objects that have been on display at the Metropolitan Museum in the 18th century period room clearly represent la creme de la creme of furnishings and decoration from that period, besides being historically significant because of their provenance and documentation.

One such object is described in the exhibit as having been sold to the Comtesse Du Barry, the mistress of King Louis XV, for her apartments at Versailles. The Du Barry desk has a likely date of 1768. It is composed of four different woods, metal, gilt, and porcelain. It is ornamented with porcelain plaques attributed to the Sevres workshop. The rail around the raised back section includes a subtle reference to Chinese motifs, it appears.

The interlocking design is suggestive of Chinese screen carving detail, perhaps reflecting the previously noted rage for such decorative elements. Every surface is inlaid with porcelain plaques by Sevres. These plaques portray flower garlands, or bouquets, although it is difficult to determine which varieties without a closer examination than the museum would allow. The flowers are quite believable as flowers, and demonstrate an appreciation for nature that is entirely consistent with the principals of art at that time[9].

The gilded garlands which adorn the legs adhere, whether consciously or not, to the principles espoused by Hogarth. He recommends the use of waving lines that “lead the eye a wanton kind of chase” (W. Hogarth 76).

Given that this is meant to serve as a desk, it is doubtful that having joints between the plaques and the wood would be terribly practical for drafting billet-doux. Imagine writing on a tiled kitchen counter, with corrugation or bumps every few inches. Of course, Mme. Du Barry quite likely used some sort of a blotter (no doubt exquisitely made) to catch the ink drips, anyway.

Also, the drawer section drops down so far that only a very low chair or a very short person would be able to fit underneath the desk. This suggests that Mme. Du Barry may have sat sideways to the desk while writing. Given the width of the skirts that were worn during this period, skirts which, during some fashion vogues, were held away from the body by baskets worn on the hips like twin fanny packs (called panniers), this may have been the case.

Still, it makes quite a contrast with 20th century designs with the identical functional requirements: a place to hand-write letters or other documents in one’s private rooms. A modern-day desk would have a bowling alley-smooth surface. It would have enough space for a modern woman to put her legs completely underneath to write while actually facing the desk and the paper It would be sturdy enough to hold some books for reference.

The ornamentation of this piece is not limited to the exquisite porcelain inlay, but includes the gilded framing of the porcelain pieces on the front and sides, a beaded edging on the curved legs, and gilded ornamental cladding on the outer portions of the tops of the legs. There is also a gilt medallion. The feet are clad in gilt as well.

The gilded garlands on the legs actually look as though they would jab one in the stomach, and be rather uncomfortable. Again, as with the height of the kneehole, this suggests a requisite posture during use that recalls paintings and portraits of the day, wherein a magnificently clad lady might be portrayed turned at a ? angle to the writing desk instead of hunched over her epistolary work. Perhaps art imitated life in this regard.

The decorative elements of this piece clearly almost overwhelm its functionality. However, just as clearly, based on the price of such an item, this was not an issue in assigning a value to it. It appears to be a work of decorative art primarily, and only by happenstance, a piece of furniture. As modern observers, we may find it difficult to imagine giving house room to something that has such limited practicality. However, consider the setting.

The apartment at Versailles was a residence that may have functioned more as an advertisement of the power and status of the lady who lived there, than as a place to be comfy. In this context, such an item takes on the same purpose as the luxury car of a real estate agent: a signal to all observers that this is a person of immense influence and success. It is also an advertisement for the craftspeople that created it.

The fact that the decorative elements make it a joke to actually use becomes irrelevant. Its purchase supports French industry. It serves as a model for other designers, and informs the purchasing decisions of every lady who visits the Comtesse. As such, it succeeds brilliantly.

The other piece is a secretary thought to have belonged to Marie Antoinette, and dates from about 1787. A team of artisans contributed to its creation. It is composed of a bewildering array of materials, including seven varieties of wood, two types of metal (plus the gilding material), three categories of ceramics, and marble. It is different from the Du Barry desk in that it features Wedgewood medallions, as well as Sevres porcelain inlays.

This may have been a compliment to France’s British allies/enemies, or a poor political decision on the part of that ill-fated lady. The Wedgewood medallions appear to feature classical subject matter, such as someone (Leda, or Cupid perhaps?) riding on a swan, and a beautiful woman handing something to a smaller figure (Cupid again, perhaps?).

A judicious and appropriate use of Classical references was recommended by Pope (Pope 65).The gilded garlands seem to be reminiscent of Greek laurel leaves[10]. The figures at the corners are very like the caryatids supporting the corners on Classical temples[11]. The legs are striped in a way that actually looks similar to Egyptian funerary furniture.

The stretcher bars that stabilize the stand have an oriental feel, reminiscent of Chinese carving detail. As noted earlier, such themes found their way into all phases of design. The inlay work on the stretcher bars looks like the type of surface ornamentation found on small boxes from Spain to India, and still popular today. As a secretary on a stand, it was presumably meant to fulfill a similar function to the desk, but be portable. It would be a dandy travelling advertisement for the artisans on both sides of the English Channel.

Once again, the ornamentation overwhelms the functionality. To use this piece of furniture one would risk either bruising oneself on the protruding garlands, or breaking off some of this fragile-looking work. It would be very difficult to actually write a letter at this mini-desk. It might have done nicely to store or (hide) billet-doux, however.

From a design standpoint, if considered with modern eyes, the mix of media is jarring. Wedgewood goes with itself, a modern customer would insist, not with a completely different type of ceramic. But this was a prized product and possession! How did it meet the expectations of the day? Perhaps it fulfilled the notion of surprise, like a dog made of feathers (Shenstone 74) [12]. It almost seems as though this were a journeyman piece; .intended to display every craft in which that the workshop could claim superiority.

Both pieces are treasures of craftsmanship and skill. Both are rather useless as furniture. Both mix a variety of media and design elements in a way that the modern eye might find busy and mutually incompatible. Both represent substantial investments for the purchaser, and untold effort by the artisans. Both are clearly meant to signal wealth and power to observers.

Are they tasteful? Not by modern standards. However, as miniature, condensed summaries of current design elements, they might have functioned magnificently. Modern lives are full of stimuli that were absent in the 18th century. In the absence of magazines, radio, television, computers, telephones, and the myriad of things that intrude on our attention today, the presence in a room of one or more of such little jewels, studded with ornamentation, might be just the fillip of color and luxury that was needed.

Look at the life these pieces were part of. Consider that the ladies who owned these items were likely performing their bodily functions into a highly decorated chamber pot. Consider that for a week out of every month they could not leave their residence which because of natural cycles, and the absence of means to deal with them discreetly. Consider that the hair of these ladies was washed, at most, on a monthly basis, and probably crawled with lice and worse.

Consider that a bath was something laughably infrequent. Consider that laundry was a week-long process from start to finish (at least), given the need to dry everything by air. Consider that fresh foods were available only in season or from a hothouse. Consider that even the most trivial infection could carry off the most beautiful and feted creature in Europe in a matter of days. Life was still short and hard for most.

The poorest paid clerk at Walmart today has access to the luxury of hygiene and personal comfort that even the wealthiest woman in the world could not dream of in the 18th century. Would not a gem-like piece such as these distract the mind from such nagging miseries? It is quite possible that, upon seeing both these items for the first time, 18th century observers would respond as Charles Le Brun describes in his analysis of admiration, demonstrating “rare and extraordinary esteem”. (Le Brun 163).

The artifacts of man reflect the time and place and values of the culture out of which they arose. These two pieces demonstrate the value that the 18th century upper classes placed on ornamentation, sometimes to the exclusion of function. They signal wealth and power and support for art and artisans, and they demonstrate that the owner has knowledge of classical antiquity and an appreciation of naturalistic and exotic design elements. They are truly representative of the 18th century.


A History of Pottery: Continental Porcelains. 2010. 5 March 2010 .

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Consider that in 1714 the English Board of Longitude offered a generous prize, and inspired a lifetime of work on the part of John Harrison and Pierre LeRoy to create an accurate enough chronometer to allow practical improvements in determining location on the ocean (Gasciogne). It had not been very many generations since the actual borders of a possibly flat world were in question. These chronometers were also, in the way most crafted items were at the time, stunningly beautiful objects.
The results of experimentation and observation were visible in advances in science and technology, such as Georges Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon’s work in mathematics and mechanics (Kreis), the cataloging of species by Carolus Linnaeus (Scientists in 18th Century Uppsala), the application of steam to industry (Bellis), and even the development of the fledgling social sciences (Hume, Four Dissertations, as quoted 66-67).
Charles Le Brun laid out in systematic fashion the muscles movements in the face that that signaled human emotions (Le Brun 161-163).
Kennedy’s listing includes not only the artifacts acquired by the Thomas Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, but the Earl’s rationale and thought process in selecting or rejecting items to include or acquire (Kennedy 96-99). The phenomenon of the art catalogue as a combination of groveling encomium and scholarly documentation seems to be a novel feature of this century. Although there had been previous works in praise of specific noblemen e.g. (Medieval Sourcebook:A Late Medieval Spanish Nobleman: Don Juan Pacheco, Master of the Order of Santiago (1419-1474)), focusing on their art collections was a new twist.
To the contemporary reader, Chambers reflects, to an almost embarrassing extent, the intense ethnocentrism of his era. In spite of the widening world that Europeans now confronted, he can just barely accord the whole of Chinese architecture and design enough worth to justify writing seriously about them. He damns with faint praise the entire complex and elaborate aesthetics of China, deeming their products “toys” (Chambers 297). There are three ironic points to make: (1) He does not mention at all the nearly frantic and sometimes dishonest efforts of Europeans, over decades, to identify the techniques that the Chinese used to make such exquisite and durable ceramics (A History of Pottery: Continental Porcelains), and (2) he had just recently applied this Chinese-inspired aesthetic to his execution of a commission for the design of Kew Gardens, and, (3) one wonders, could he have possibly imagined the wild popularity in fashion, and in all forms of ornamentation, of Chinoiserie themes and motifs which had been growing in Europe and America for some decades, which his own book helped to spread, and which continues today (Chinoiserie)?
It also created two new categories of citizen; the artistic ex-patriot (Skelton 105-106).
William Shenstone, although more a garden designer than social critic, is scathing in describing those who obsessively rely on antiquities for decoration and inspiration as “lazy” and “pusillanimous” (Shenstone 73-74).
The praise which Lessing lavishes on the almost serene countenance of classical figures contrasts with the description of how to add expression to a face in art by Le Brun (Le Brun).
Nature was a powerful muse for the 18th century artist, at least their idea of what constituted nature. This was not a novel concept: Poussin, who did not survive the turn of the 1700s, is quoted as saying that choosing subject matter from nature gives the painter “free scope for his genius and industry” (Holt, Poussin 159). Watteau is praised by his biographer as a “great admirer of nature”, in spite of the fact that his paintings all look as though they were set in some sort of ancien regime Disneyland, entirely devoid of mud, cow pies, or effort (de Jullienne 306-308). Le Fresnoy’s advice was to take nature as one’s teacher (Holt, Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy 163). Even when it was a stretch, an artist was encouraged to get out and draw from nature (Skelton 106). This was of course a major change from the art housed in the medieval period section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wherein naturalism is absent, and apparently not much missed.
Anything at all that had the taste of classical Rome or Greece held greater value. For example, it was considered de rigeur for an artist to spend time in Rome, even if they were out painting landscapes and not sitting in the great galleries sketching from existing art works (Skelton 106). Presumably, the act of painting the same views that the ancients gazed upon would bring the artist closer to their achievements.
Greco-Roman objects, scooped up in quantity by collectors, inspired design details, especially in the first half of the 1700s (Kennedy 96-99). These were augmented by engravings of those larger monuments and temples which had not already been dismantled and sent away in packing cases (Bruce 112).
Chambers notes that the Chinese inject surprise in their layout of gardens (Chambers 302). It is interesting to observe that even today, one can see on the streets of any major city, elderly ladies of evident Chinese origin, wearing a glorious profusion of entirely distinct floral patterns together at once.


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