Antique Art Furniture: The Aesthetic Movement

Furniture is sometimes described as being “functional art.” The functioning part is generally obvious. The table has to stand up straight, the drawers have to open and close and the bed has to keep you up at night. But the art part? Since the definition of what is actually art is so open to interpretation, one man’s art may be seen as another man’s junk. The same holds for furniture. Some furniture may be seen as artistic in some circles while it is just a bunch of tables and chairs in others.

In order to help the less artistic of us understand when we are looking at a certain piece of furniture that it should be considered “art,” some furniture styles have the term incorporated into the name just to make sure. In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s there was that style called “Art Moderne.” That was the style that came from the 1925 Paris convention known as the International Exposition of Decorative Arts. It evolved into the “streamline” look of America in the 1930s, with waterfall bedroom sets and round nose trains. The name of the style was updated in the 1960s to “Art Deco,” still retaining the “art” part just so we remember.

Just before that was the Art Nouveau movement, the “new” art that came at the turn of the century that incorporated elongated organic forms into the structure of the furniture. It was primarily a European phase in furniture but it did have some influence in this country in other decorative arts.

But there was an “art’ movement even before that one. The 19th-century version of the “art” movement can sometimes be very confusing to the average shopper for older and antique furniture. It sort of looks like something else but not really. And sometimes the color is awful. The movement actually started around the middle of the 19th-century with some of the same people involved in the advent of the Arts and Crafts movement, Charles Eastlake among them. The new movement gained a significant foothold on the American furniture market after the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The American public was smitten with the Japanese exhibit in Philadelphia, and furniture styling immediately picked up an Oriental flavor. At the same time, people were beginning to tire of the overwhelming size, complexity and severity of Rococo and Renaissance Revival furniture. They were tired of high Victorian styling. Eastlake’s simplistic approach to furniture design suddenly was very popular even though he didn’t design much of the furniture himself.

The desk on the left illustrates the Oriental approach. It is ebonized with gold incising. The desk on the right, in a wood finish, is the Moorish approach to the style with geometric fretwork. Both desks are based on Eastlake’s design principles.

The desk on the left illustrates the Oriental approach. It is ebonized with gold incising. The desk on the right, in a wood finish, is the Moorish approach to the style with geometric fretwork. Both desks are based on Eastlake’s design principles.

His concepts were linear and the guiding principle was that of visible craftsmanship. It didn’t take long for the basic Eastlake style to be adapted to the new movement. By adding a few Oriental touches to this simple idea, the form of “Art Furniture” was born, characterized by shallow carvings, devoid of veneer and excessive ornamentation. The entire movement, in architecture and decorative arts as well as furniture, became known as the “Aesthetic Movement,” implying that the existence of art was for art’s sake; a direct conflict with the Victorian concept that art must serve a moral purpose by reinforcing moral values. Even the name, “Aesthetic,” means artistic or beautiful.

One of the favorite finishes of Aesthetic movement craftsmen was the ebonized look. Cherry was a favorite base material because it did not telegraph the grain or nature of the wood through the solid black overcoat yet it somehow retained the warmth found in natural wood. The wood was stained, not painted, a jet black and then highly polished. The black background further enhanced the contrast with the gold incising or the lighter woods used in marquetry panels and floral inlays. But not all Aesthetic furniture is ebonized. Walnut and rosewood were popular mediums, and bird’s eye maple was a favorite accent wood. And not all decoration was Oriental. It ranged from classical molding to medieval spindles, inspired by Oriental, Moorish, Gothic and Egyptian influences. The furniture was complex and often very expensive in both material and labor to construct.

This desk is somewhat plainer than the others but it is still in the style It may have been ebonized originally and refinished somewhere along the line.

This desk is somewhat plainer than the others but it is still in the style It may have been ebonized originally and refinished somewhere along the line.

This period of American furniture is perhaps one of the less-distinctly defined periods in both style and time. Styles were often eclectic and forms ranged as far back as updated versions of the 17th-century court cupboard to interpretations of the modern, for the time, Davenport desk. The Aesthetic Movement in American furniture generally is regarded as being from the mid 1870s to just after the turn of the century. This minor aberration in furniture style served as the bridge between high Victorian morality and the radical lurch about to come in the form of Arts & Crafts, a true revolution.

So now you may have an idea about that mystery piece you have seen in a shop or at an auction. It looks sort of like late Eastlake but it is a little too fancy or elegant. It also seems to be a little foreign, Oriental or Near Eastern but it obviously is a domestic piece. It could very well be an Aesthetic Movement piece from the late 19th century. And whatever you do – don’t try to strip that awful black paint. It’s part of the “aesthetics” of the piece.

Fred Taylor is a Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3.00 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address.

For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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  1. Sable Minor says:

    Mr. Taylor, I have several pieces of furniture that I could not identify previously. After reading your story I now know what I have. Thank you for providing this information. You explain it so well and make it easy to understand.

    Mrs. Sable Minor