A Brief History of Painted Furniture

Fine hand painted furniture had its beginnings with the use of resin lacquer in china about 3500 years ago.

Fast forward to Marco Polo, who was thought to have brought examples of the highly-developed state of Chinese lacquer to Italy as early as 1283 A.D. Within the next 100 years the Italian Renaissance had its beginnings and the Venetian school of artisans was in full sway by the early 1500's.

The English began to engage in the China trade during Elizabeth I's reign in the late 1500's. Trade expansion in the late 1600's saw the importation of hand painted Chinese lacquered panels to England, followed by their incorporation into hand painted furniture by English cabinetmakers.

Meanwhile, in France the stage was set for the beginning of the golden age of hand painted furniture. Louis XIV presided over Versailles and the French baroque period characterized by bombé chests and extensive use of ormolu (also called “mosaic gold”, an alloy of copper and zinc), cast brass or bronze gilded over fire with an amalgam of gold and mercury (used for furniture mounts), gold powder, and intricate inlaid woods. An almost 60-year reign by his successor, Louis XV, in the mid-18th century was a period in which France dominated hand painted furniture design and set the pace for the rest of Europe. The grand scale of the baroque gave way to the delicate ornamentation of rococo style, more compatible with the intimate room settings of the period.

In the beginning of the eighteenth century, Venetian society prospered because of the more than 450 families of nobility in residence, half of which were extremely wealthy. The Venetians, who had a love of festivals and elegance, abandoned the early influences of Spanish design and embraced the less formal Parisian approach. However, the tone of Venetian society and of Venetian decoration was livelier and even less formal than the French. Small apartments with intimate salons were all the rage and this permitted the creation of charming interiors decorated with painted ceilings, painted paneling and, of course, painted furniture.

It is here one sees the introduction of hand painted imitations of French ormolu and guilloche (an ornamental pattern or border consisting of paired ribbons or lines flowing in interlaced curves around a series of circular voids), as well as bright colors to enliven dark interiors. The gesso technique of surface preparation insured a fine ground for decoration on frames of all shapes and sizes, some of them bordering on the outlandish by today's standards of taste.

The discovery of the ancient Italian cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii in 1738 and 1748 ushered in a period of neoclassicism that quickly found its way into hand painted furniture design and decoration. Through the influence of many, including Englishman Robert Adam, European design prominence incorporated and transcended the oriental. Louis XVI passed onto, then off the political scene, and hand painted furniture modes veered toward more austere directoire and empire lines.

A gilded era in hand painted furniture had passed, but the legacy lingers today. According to their various tastes, 20th century collectors and interior designers prize hand painted furniture of the 18th century period for a variety of reasons — workmanship, fineness of line, richness of ornamentation, and reflection of an opulent time not likely to be repeated.

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