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Baroque Furniture: Style, Characteristics & History

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, we'll explore the elaborate and refined furniture of the Baroque. We'll examine the history and discover the distinctive style and the main characteristics of the furniture from this time of opulence.

Furniture of the Baroque

When we see the word Baroque, we often think about the luxurious palaces or the elaborate religious art. But the Baroque was present in many other arts and utilitarian objects, including furniture, with many elaborate pieces that could be considered as works of art on their own.

The Baroque period in art history came after the Renaissance and was characterized by the use of abundant ornamentation. Baroque style started in Italy at the beginning of the 17th century and lasted until the first decades of the 18th, when it was gradually replaced by the Rococo style.

History

The Baroque artistic movement was initially promoted by the Catholic Church as a response to the Protestant Reformation. The intent of the style was to establish an emotional connection with the viewer. This type of art was meant to be understood by the uneducated masses, as opposed to the cultivated audience targeted during the Renaissance.

The Catholic monarchies soon adopted the style as a way to exhibit their wealth and power, and Baroque art expanded throughout the Catholic regions in Europe and the Americas. The Baroque style was also seen in furniture in the Protestant regions of the continent, although it did have significant differences in these areas.

French Baroque Table (c. 1670)
French Baroque Table

Unlike architecture and other visual arts of the period, Baroque furniture got its start in France. Designers began to produce elaborate and ornamented pieces for the monarchy, and this fashion was gradually adopted by other courts all over Europe. Some of the pieces produced for the French king Louis XIV became symbols of Baroque furniture and are also known as the Louis XIV style, which is highly demanded by many antiques enthusiasts and collectors.

Style and Characteristics of Baroque Furniture

Baroque furniture shares some characteristics with other artistic mediums during this period, the most distinctive being the elaborate ornamentation. Furniture pieces had plenty of details, and the designs featured an exuberant and sometimes exaggerated decoration. In Baroque designs, decorative elements were never too much.

Jewelry chest of Louis XIV (1676), gold on oak
Jewelry chest of Louis XIV

Despite the elaborate ornamentation, Baroque compositions had a delicate balance and a harmonious integration of all elements. The furniture pieces were usually symmetrical, and all the details were replicated on both sides, with very small variations, if any.

The general layout often included twisted columns, which incorporated plenty of curves for giving a sense of dynamism. In most tables, cabinets, armoires and tall furniture, pedestal feet were common, usually diagonally interlaced. The four legs were usually the only elements to touch the floor. Heavy moldings were used to decorate not only the uppermost part but also the top of each section where there was an important change in size, like on top of the pedestals and lower drawers. For decorating the crown moldings, a wide variety of elements were used, from pediments to sculptures.

The establishment of regular trade routes between Europe and Asia influenced the materials used. Imported tropical woods were highly demanded and were considered exotic and exclusive. Ebony and mahogany were used in many pieces, while some of local woods included oak, walnut and chestnut.

Ebony cabinet with ivory inlays (c. 1660)
Ebony cabinet with ivory inlays

Elaborate compositions made with inlays became characteristic of Baroque furniture. The inlays were made by inserting veneer (thin pieces of wood) of contrasting colors or from different materials, like metals and ivory. Marble table tops were also common, and craftsmen used different types for creating contrasting compositions.

By the turn of the 18th century, the gilded finish was the trend. It was made by covering the surfaces of a furniture piece in gold leaf. Gold was associated with wealth, and having golden furniture was the ultimate luxury. Golden chandeliers and frames for mirrors or paintings also became popular among the European courts. Even doorknobs had an elaborate design and golden decoration.

Ebony commode decorated with gilded bronze and a marble top (c. 1710)
commode c. 1710

The motifs for decoration were usually stylized foliage and geometric, with spirals and curves. Figurative details like cherubs, chubby children and animals were usually used as ornamentation on the corners and the top of the legs. Carving or inlaying the crests and initials of the owner also became a symbol of status.

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