Europe, America (mid-18th c. - mid-19th c.)
Neoclassical design emerged in Europe in the 1750s, as the Age of Enlightenment reached full flower. Furniture took its cues from the styles of ancient Rome and Athens: symmetrical, ordered, dignified forms with such details as tapered and fluted chair and table legs, backrest finials and scrolled arms. Over a period of some 20 years, first in France and later in Britain, Neoclassical design — also known as Louis XVI, or Louis Seize — would supersede the lithe and curvaceous Rococo or Louis XV style.
The first half of the 18th century had seen a rebirth of interest in classical antiquity. The "Grand Tour" of Europe, codified as a part of the proper education of a patrician gentleman, included an extended visit to Rome. Some ventured further, to sketch the ruins of ancient Greece. These drawings and others — particularly those derived from the surprising and rich archaeological discoveries in the 1730s and ’40s at the sites of the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum — caused great excitement among intellectuals and aesthetes alike.
Neoclassical furniture is meant to reflect both grace and power. The overall appearance of Neoclassical chairs, tables and cabinetry is strong and rectilinear. These pieces are, in effect, classical architecture in miniature: chair and tables legs are shaped like columns; cabinets are constructed with elements that mirror friezes and pediments.
Yet Neoclassicism is enlivened by gilt and silver leaf, marquetry, and carved and applied ornamental motifs based on Greek and Roman sculpture: acanthus leaves, garlands, laurel wreathes, sheaves of arrow, medallions, and chair splats are carved in the shapes of lyres and urns. As you can see from the furniture shown on these pages, there is a bit of whimsy in such stately pieces — a touch of lightness that will always keep Neoclassicism fresh.