Rococo architecture ............... Illustrated FURNITURE Glossary

Furniture - Rococo / Rococo Revival styles
1715-1775 / 1840-1860

Table of Contents:

Rococo style in 18th century: 1715-1775


Rococo is an ornate style originating in France in the 18th century and evolving from the Baroque style ("Baroque gone mad," some would quip).

Rococo is applied to the Louis XV period in France (1715-1774).

The word is derived from "rocaille" (pebble), but the term referred especially to the small stones and shells used to decorate the interiors of grottoes. Such shells or shell forms were the principal motifs in Rococo ornament.

Louis XIV died in 1715 after a reign of 72 years, and there arose in Paris new types of private patrons -- nobles created by the sale of offices, nouveau riche tax collectors, and millionaires and bankers fat on the spoils of financing 25 years of disastrous wars. They luxuriated in a new artistic freedom, indulged their highly individualistic tastes, and welcomed fresh ideas in decoration. A society devoted to material comfort and preoccupied with personal pleasure demanded constant variety, surprise, and originality.

The French nobles abandoned Versailles after 1715 for the pleasures of town life. The "hotels" (town houses) of Paris soon became the enters of a new, softer style we call "rococo." Rococo appeared in France in about 1700, primarily as a style of interior design. The French Rococo exterior was most often simple, or even plain, but Rococo exuberance took over the interior.

The feminine look of the Rococo style suggests that the age was dominated by the taste and the social initiative of women, and, to a large extent it was. Women -- Madame de Pompadour in France, Maria Theresa in Austria, Elizabeth and Catherine in Russia -- held some of the highest positions in Europe. The Rococo salon was the center of early 18th-centruy Parisian society, and Paris was the social center of Europe.

French Rococo interiors were designed as lively, total works of art in which the architecture, relief sculptures, and wall paintings were complemented by elegant furniture, enchanting small sculpture, ornamented mirror frames, delightful ceramics and silver, a few "easel" paintings, and decorative tapestry.

Watteau, Boucher, and Fragonard typified French Baroque painting.

Juste Aurele Meissonier, an Italian who came to Paris in 1723, is credited with being largely responsible for developing the style. He produced a book of engraved designs using the shell as a decorative motif.

The 17th century doctrine that decoration was subject to architecture was reversed; now decoration dictated form.

Rococo features:

  • Continuous undulating curves
  • Twisting naturalistic ornament in marquetry and metal
  • Whimsical interpretation of mainly classical designs, characterized by carved shells and S-shaped curves.
  • Lack of symmetry (asymmetrical)
  • Restless, fluid movement
  • Fanciful treatment of forms in nature:
  • Attenuated sprays and tendrils
  • Pierced and jagged scallop shells
  • Flower garlands
  • Flickering flames
  • Exotic motifs from the Near and Far East, esp. China
  • Freely modeled forms, often combining natural elements, e.g., animals, shells, and leaves with formal scrolls
  • Asymmetrical

"The idea of trying to make a piece of furniture resemble a scale model of a building reappears in every revival of classicism. In contrast is the homogeneity of the design whose ornamentation is an essential part of the whole structural method, exemplified in Gothic and French Rococo furniture." -- "The New Encyclopedia of Furniture," by Joseph Aronson. Crown Publishers, 1967

Examples from 18th century France: Versailles




The Queen Anne style was a restrained version, and the Chippendale a more elaborate version of the Rococo. In 1721, England lifted heavy import duties on mahogany. The hardness of the wood made possible the intricate carving in Chippendale designs


Rococo Revival in 19th century America: 1840-1870

Proportions Medium to large.

Essential elements Curving overall shapes. Bold and naturalistic piercework or solid carving of flowers, fruit, and leaves framed by scrolls. Cabriole and scrolled legs. Tufted upholstery and inner springs. Marble table tops. Laminated wood used on some pieces. Forms sometimes adapted in cast iron.

Woods Mahogany or rosewood; also walnut for lower-priced pieces.

Notable forms Balloon-back and upholstered-back chairs. Fully upholstered sofa with serpentine back, méridienne, settee, and tete-a-tete. Side and center tables. Elaborate beds.

- Marvin D. Schwartz, American Furniture: Tables, Chairs, Sofas and Beds. 2000

The Rococo Revival style was introduced to America around 1840 and remained dominant throughout the 1860s. Referred to at that time as the Louis XIV style - though it is even closer to the Louis XV style - it is much bolder than its 18th century model. Ornament is carved in higher relief, and decorative detail is usually far more realistic. Rococo Revival examples are usually smaller than 18th-century prototypes.

Rococo Revival style furniture was especially popular in Italianate style houses.

Most examples of Rococo Revival style furniture have exuberant, curvilinear floral decoration. Many pieces are supported on curving cabriole legs, and topped by marble..

Rosewood, mahogany, and walnut were the favored woods during the Rococo Revival. The style is characterized by richly carved ornament - roses, leaves, grapes, scrolls, and shells - on curving forms inspired by 18th-century French Rococo furniture.

The style was most commonly used for parlor and bedroom furniture; elaborate parlor sets included sofas or settees, chairs, center tables, and accessory forms.

Tables: Center and side tables often had marble tops and scalloped shapes.

Sofa: The tête-à-tête, or conversational sofa, was a popular new form.

Chairs: All furnishings were made in exaggerated curving shapes. Many chairs had balloon-shaped backs and, like most Rococo Revival pieces, cabriole legs.

Upholstery: Upholstery, frequently tufted, became an important feature as concern for comfort grew and inner springs were perfected.

Cast iron: The Rococo style was also popular for forms cast in iron and used outdoors.

American Rococo style examples:

John Henry Belter

Born and trained as a cabinetmaker and woodcarver in Germany, Belter migrated to New York where, by 1844, he had his own business. He continued it until his death in 1863. His furniture is usually of laminated rosewood with distinctive pierced and carved decoration. Best known for his chairs, Belter also made some matching tables, sofas, couches, beds, cabinets and secretaries.

Some Rococo Revival pieces are intricately carved and pierced, made possible by a new technique introduced by John Henry Belter of New York. His was one of several workshops using wood for intricately carved Rococo forms. His use of lamination on Rococo Revival pieces was widely imitated.

Rococo and Art Nouveau

Some critics interpret the Art Nouveau style (1895-1910) as a turn-of-the-centnry reinvention of the Rococo. Art Nouveau is characterized as sinuous, organic, and sensusous - the essence of Rococo.

Photos and their arrangement © 2005 Chuck LaChiusa
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