Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Interior Decorating - The Baroque Seventeenth Century

( Originally Published 1919 )


NOT yet does it seem to be understood by many that the spirit which is contrary to the Classic in interior decoration is the same which opposes it in the other arts : consequently we hear much of Baroque, Rococo, Art Nouveau and the " Newer Decoration" while feeling sure it is not generally realised they are all recrudescences of the Romantic spirit. The failure to recognise this has been responsible for much narrowness of view.

These two great informing influences—the Classic and the Romantic—which affect literature and the other arts—likewise move through the course of interior decoration and act as alternate inspirations. These often blend, and indeed since the beginnings of modern art (as distinguished from mediaeval) have seldom been entirely separate ; but one or the other is nearly always dominant.

The Classic ideal is that of "order," of restraint, and is usually accompanied by dignified colour: the Romantic is emotional, free, frets and champs at restraint, resents the rule of precedent and naturally rejoices in exuberant colour.

We shall continually see the manifestations of both, and have not long to wait; for here, almost at the beginnings of modern decoration, the Renaissance movement, dominantly Classic though infiltrated with many romantic features, was interrupted, we might almost say set upon, by the contrary influence. Like the pre-ceding movement, the Baroque arose in Southern Europe, and with greater or less force swept over the Continent and England.

A natural question to any enquiring mind is why such changes occur and why new movements arise. We shall always find the answer in natural causes, and learn that they are in the direction of development or reaction—sometimes partaking of both, as does the one we are now to consider.

The Renaissance began with the classic inspiration of order and dignity. To this was added state and magnificence. Interior architecture and furnishing became, through political and social changes, increasingly ornate, till the original inspiration was forgotten or ignored; till the desire for display could no longer be satisfied by the capabilities of the classic, aided, though it was, by features unknown to Greece and Rome, and so naturally burst its bonds and overflowed into the romantic, curvilinear, redundant and often ill-balanced Baroque. Impatience of the restrictions of the Renaissance doubtless also aided in developing a reaction from its principles.

Although much of the rectilinear persisted in the Baroque, its characteristic is the curve. But when, later, we arrive at the succeeding period—the Rococo—we shall find that its characteristic also is the curvilinear, and to a still greater degree—what, therefore, are the outstanding features by which we shall recognise the Baroque?

They will become still more evident when we compare it with the Rococo, but as "seeing is believing," let us look for a moment at its extreme manifestation in the cut of the diminutive Spanish chair illustrated in Plate 136 A.

In the first place, it rather increased the weight and retained the impressiveness of the Renaissance, though different in its forms, and the constructional material remained largely oak and walnut. In the second, while all sorts of curves were in use in the Baroque period an analysis seems to show the "broken curve," often called the Flemish scroll, the C curve and the cartouche to be its most prominent decorative motifs. In furniture, where symptoms are always the most marked, all its curves were marked by roundness of the edges, as is appropriate to their weight, and they were what we might denominate stopped curves, being usually closed at the ends by a whorled termination. They were not free and flowing—there is a ponderous tightness about them all. The shell was much used as an ornament.

Its interior architecture was marked in its use of pilasters, pillars, broken entablatures and ornament without due regard to construction and an often clumsy heaviness in mouldings and details.

In order to arrive at the practical use and application of the Baroque interior and furnishing today these will now be taken up in both their international and inter period relations.


Typical illustrations are given of interiors of the various nations under Baroque influence. So vastly do the characteristics of the fixed background of England differ from the others, and such an interesting condition then prevailed, that this may be given first consideration.

England: Though there had been some earlier manifestations of Baroque tendencies, the restoration of Charles II, the ensuing gaiety, love of display and commercial enterprise let loose this and all other foreign fashions. But at the same time the Classic leanings of the great architects, Wren and Inigo Jones, and the example of their work, held in check these tendencies so far as architecture—exterior and interior—was concerned. Contemporaneously with this, the previous Renaissance style still persisted (Plate 136 B). Not-withstanding these architectural influences the Baroque movement was not restrained in the direction of movable furniture, and we therefore have the unusual combination of a Classical or nearly Classical background in Baroque times accompanied by furniture often very Baroque indeed.

This furniture will be treated in a following section and all the details of the changes in interior architecture will be found in Part I, Chapter I.

France: Across the channel the Baroque influence came in with the reign of Henri IV (1589) and persisted till the death of Louis XIV in 1715.

Beyond the ability and taste always instinctive in the French, even during the vagaries of certain periods, no restraint was there laid upon Baroque tendencies during the earlier reigns of this epoch (Plate 30 A), but, as we shall see, during the times of Louis XIV a marked change of direction became manifest (Plates 34 and 138).

Because of the faults already mentioned the back-grounds of this epoch are not particularly desirable for our houses to-day, and, notwithstanding the restraint of the latter period, the heavy magnificence of the style of Louis XIV unfits it for anything else than buildings of palatial proportions and hotels, for which it has frequently been used. Even for these we may prefer less grandiose styles, but justice must be done the remark-able work accomplished during the reign of the most famous king of France.

After the regency of his mother, Anne of Austria, he assumed the reins of government in 1661. By 1684 he had so humbled the power of the nobles and assemblies that his power was practically absolute. At court the utmost splendour was maintained, and a ceremonial pompous and burdensome to a degree. In literature it was the Augustan Age in France, the age of Corneille and Racine, Moliere, Boileau, Fenelon, Bossuet and Bourdillon. Under his talented minister, Colbert, all the arts received the most liberal encouragement, work-men being regularly employed by the Crown.

A pruning hand was laid upon the excrescences of the Baroque, and what remained was combined with a structure largely Renaissance, the result being an amalgamation rightly designated as "the grand manner." To sum it in a phrase: the style of Louis Quatorze was the effect of the spirit of Classicism working with material Renaissance and Baroque (Plates 34–36 and 138).

But the latter part of the reign of "Le Grand Monarque" was marked by disastrous wars, consequent exorbitant taxation, the resentment of his subjects; and, leaving an almost ruined country, detested and unmourned, in 1715 he sank into his grave.

Italy: Here the Baroque impulse found its way to some extent into the details of interior architecture—cornices, cartouches and carving, mouldings and mantels; but the Classic construction generally remained. Its most evident effect was increasing magnificence (Plate 139). With tesselated floors, carved mantels and doors, every inch of the walls and ceilings often decorated in full colour and gold, or walls encrusted in marbles; with furniture gloriously carved and some pieces painted and gilded; textiles of full bodied colour, often enhanced with applique or needlework; sculpture and Oriental porcelains ; accessories of every description—with all these it is marvellous that dignity and repose were at all preserved. Yet this decoration was successful! Two requisites remained—spaciousness and artistic knowledge.

Spain : In conservative Spain the walls remained much as they were under the Renaissance, though the tiling or painting may have grown even more colourful. But the writers would particularly direct the attention of wealthy connoisseurs and their decorators to Spain as a source of interesting elements varied from those of countries decoratively better known. If the upper walls were plain, that plainness was redeemed to the last degree by the textiles which hung thereon. These were of the utmost profusion and of all known materials, light and heavy. Such colourings as crimson and brilliant green were relieved by gold. Armorial bearings were frequent motifs, with all their opportunity for richness of colour and interest of detail.

The leather work of Spain—stamped, engraved and coloured, and with silver or with gold—was particularly characteristic and famous. Porcelains, tiles, pottery, glass and smithwork will afford the discriminating collector of to-day unending delight. The wonderfully decorative chests and cabinets of Spain appeal to all lovers of the unusual and beautiful.

The Italian "domino" paper in small sections was sometimes applied to walls through most of southern Europe.


A varied selection of the furniture evolved in the various countries under Baroque influence is given in these pages and will be discussed in relation to their practical use in our present-day interiors with each other and in connexion with furniture of the preceding Renaissance movement. We shall also naturally wish to know whether under this system of International-Interperiod Decoration the combination may be ex-tended still further and successive periods also be em-braced with the two so far discussed.

It is the aim of these chapters not to lay down decorative dicta but to work out with the reader the problems that arise, all deductions being made from the existing facts. Clearheadedness is also such a desideratum that when we speak of the use of various pieces together we should stop and ask ourselves in each in-stance what we mean by "together"—directly adjoining, in the same room, or in the same house or apartment?

It is quickly evident that pieces of furniture placed side by side among the few furnishings of a small room might disagree, whereas they would only add a desirable variety in a very spacious room; also, that furniture of more decided differences might without incompatibility be employed in the various rooms of one residence.

We should also ask: What are the qualities that would prevent our using various pieces together ?—in any of the above degrees.

It is again plain that the mere fact, per se, of one piece belonging to one era and another to a different one, forms no obstacle to their being combined in use; it is the characteristics belonging to the particular periods, and of which those pieces are examples, that render them reconcilable or irreconcilable.

If one were to ask in what directions great differences should be avoided, the quick reply would almost invariably be: in form, size and colour. These are, of course, fundamental, but, as we shall see, quite as noticeable are discrepancies in texture, finish, degrees of impressiveness or elegance and the upholstery employed.

Let us then take up these characteristics or qualities at once, for they will show us what to look for in considering furniture, not only in these two epochs but in others as well. We shall also find that differences in one or two respects, where not vital, may be sufficiently balanced by likeness in others to permit an association of the pieces.

Form : Decided difference in form is indication of a difference inspirit. Yet we have seen that the Baroque grew out of the Renaissance and amalgamated itself with it to a workable extent. There was not a total variance of spirit and manifestation between the late Renaissance and the Baroque—both were massive and handsome—and the difference between them, though great, was therefore not irreconcilable and fatal. So far, therefore, as contour goes, we may ask what furniture designed over all cultured Europe during the more than two hundred years preceding 1715 may be used together ?

If our ideal is the formal one, then we had better confine ourselves to the Renaissance together with those forms of the Baroque that are dignified and, though more ornamental, preserve the weight and impressiveness of the Renaissance. Such a combination is shown in the dining-room illustrated in Plate 136 and in the other view of the same room shown in Plate 3.

If our ideal is more flexible, then we may be more liberal in our choice, especially in different rooms. In a hall we may lean to the formal. We may also do so in the drawing- or dining-room, but we should make them much more delightful by the use of greater variety. The private rooms may contain the smaller, lighter and more informal pieces of the times.

On considering whether the contours of the succeeding epochs are so radically different as to prevent their being used with the furniture of these two influences we shall find, when in turn we take them up, that in general they are. Some such combinations are, how-ever, permissible, because, if judgment be used as regards form, differences may be reconciled by carefulness in other respects.

Size and Weight : These, are two qualities, but usually go together. A large piece of furniture may, of course, be slender in its members but is usually only comparatively so. As we have seen, agreement in these respects is a strongly uniting influence and will often partially balance other discrepancies.

On the other hand, great variations in size and weight between the furniture of two periods render these pieces generally irreconcilable. Both Renaissance and late eighteenth century furniture were based upon Classic ideals, yet size and weight, with other qualities, usually differentiate them too radically to accompany each other to good effect.

Colour: Old oak and walnut go sufficiently well together in tone. Mahogany was not generally used till about 1720. The reddish tone now so frequently seen does not at all well accompany oak: the brownish shade is much better. The tone of satinwood would be agree-able with oak, but the lightness of the contours in which it was used are totally at variance with those of oak furniture. The matter of colour is, however, bound up with the qualities still to be considered.

Texture, Finish and Elegance : An English oaken Renaissance chair is foreign to a Hepplewhite mahogany chair in form, size and colour, but, in addition, we strongly feel the great difference between the open, coarse grain, dull finish and ponderous handsomeness of the one and the fine and close texture, the reflective surface and the light elegance of the other.

In the days when oak and walnut were the woods commonly employed for furniture they were in a dull finish. Mahogany, left in its natural state (unreddened by permanganate of potash) or in the brownish tone, and dully finished with wax, would not greatly conflict with oak, but the age of mahogany was different in spirit from that of oak and there is seldom occasion for' this close use.

Marqueterie and lacquered furniture, where appropriate in spirit, may always be used.

Upholstery : In seating furniture the textile covering it is often the most noticeable feature. It is plain, therefore, what a unifying or diversifying part it may play. In the Renaissance period furniture was covered with heavy velvet or brocade in full-bodied colourings —crimsons, blues and greens being favourites—and often relieved with weighty gold galons. In the reign of Louis Seize coverings were of light-weight silks in exquisite pastel and greyed colours. These extremes are mentioned merely to show how the use together of furniture covered in styles so diverse would render such pieces incongruous irrespective of the furniture itself. On the other hand, the same upholstery employed on chairs and settees of rather varying character will pull them together in effect; and handsome covering will do much to enhance the impressiveness of pieces not otherwise particularly notable. The chair shown in Plate 145 C, for instance, is rather simple, but is rendered elegant by its elaborate embroidery and fringe.


A volume would be required to describe and picture all the types of furniture of the Baroque age, bound up as it is with the political and religious history of the times and the action and reaction of country upon country. Because of this intercourse—often frictional enough—we constantly find the general forms of one country echoed in one or more of the others, but al-ways with those national differences that have been mentioned.

In all practical furnishing there are four points to be remembered as a basis :

I. Unity and variety should both be secured—the first to avoid confusion, and the second to preclude monotony by the providing of interest.

II. The unit to be considered is the house or apartment--not the single room.

III. That there are degrees in all things ; and that a closer degree of unity is necessary in the single room than in the house as a whole, especially if the room be not spacious.

IV. That a sliding scale may be used in the various rooms, providing that a satisfying effect of unity is secured throughout.

In what shall that sliding scale consist? So far as the two epochs discussed go, the writers cannot think of a better word than impressiveness. The word formality does not always hit the mark here, for a piece of furniture may be very formal in its lines and yet be quite simple ; nor does handsome cover it, for a bedroom chair may be handsome and yet not particularly impressive.

An example will make the idea clear: The two Renaissance chairs accompanying the credenza and candelabra illustrated in Plate S9 B are comparatively simple but impressive. The typical Queen Anne chair, with which we are all familiar, is Dutch and comfortable; and, notwithstanding other admirable qualities, is unimpressive. If we use one in a room we should not use the other.

We now arrive at the main point—we shall find our-selves able to employ in a single room both comparatively simple and comparatively ornate pieces (whether Renaissance or Baroque, or both together) provided the same degree of impressiveness exists in each, and provided we do not jumble them. We find this constantly illustrated in original interiors of the Renaissance and elsewhere. The wall furniture may be simple, but a table set out on the floor may have a handsomely scrolled and carved base (Plate 139), or a chest may be elaborate and its flanking chairs simple, each having its share of general impressiveness. In less formal and more intimate rooms that general degree may be less, and so the scale in the various rooms may be a sliding one.

The furniture illustrated is decidedly various in character and will enable us to consider combinations suggestive to the decorator, dealer or householder. In considering these illustrations we shall see that this furniture falls, naturally, into groups.

Having now arrived at the point where the inter period element of this plan of decoration may be exemplified, it will be most interesting first to take up Baroque pieces which will properly accompany furniture of the preceding Renaissance age.

Plate 141 B shows a fine Italian carved armoire in developed Baroque style and with a pediment fully illustrating its tendencies. Yet this handsome piece of furniture is of great dignity and would not only well ac-company the more massive mobiliary forms of Renaissance provenance but would lend distinct variety and interest.

One so fortunate as to secure a piece of furniture resembling the wonderfully decorative French cabinet (Plate 142 A) with panels and diagonal marqueterie, certainly does not need to hesitate to use it in the same room with one of the equally decorative Italian painted and gilded cassoni, though, because of their differences, he would not place them in close proximity. Each might well form a "centre of interest."

The two cabinets, on either side of the dais, in the Portuguese interior (Plate 140) are quite of a character to go with Renaissance furniture. The one on the right is pronouncedly Baroque in its support and scrollwork, but is rectangular and, impressive, while at the same time presenting decorative qualities of a different order from that of other nationalities. The table in the same room is also excellent.

Two Italian tables are shown in Plate 147 A and. B; one of these early Baroque and still rectangular in its constructional lines and the other of developed style. Both would, however, look well in a Renaissance room even in close proximity.

In Plate 144 a group is shown of an Italian cabinet with a pair of candlesticks, backed by a tapestry, and two chairs. Instead of the formal Renaissance chair usually found in such company, the owner has here placed two of Baroque type with scroll arm, waved stretcher and goat feet, and, notwithstanding the variation in type, the result is pleasing. A pair of the Louis Quatorze chairs in Genoese velvet (Plate 143 B) would go equally well here, because of general impressiveness and formal character. The cabinet is Renaissance and this chair the latest phase of Baroque, when under the Grand Monarch the Classic spirit regained a certain degree of ascendancy.

A remarkably good chair in such a situation would be the Portuguese Baroque chair with spiral members (Plate 149 B). Its generally rectangular lines, brocade upholstery and quiet dignity fit it for the neighbour-hood of most Renaissance pieces and other Baroque furniture of like character, while its back is at once noticeable because of its difference from the usual forms of other countries.

Plate 145 is occupied by a group of six different chairs, Italian and English, of ornate Baroque character. Yet these chairs are dignified and impressive in character and of these, too, we may say they would by no means be out of place in a room with Renaissance forms of generally ornamental type.

We have only to consider these English chairs and the Classicism of the contemporary English backgrounds illustrated to see how far apart architecture and furniture in this age could be in that country.

We may now take up types of Baroque furniture which do not properly accompany Renaissance forms. The Armoire (Plate 141 A.) is illustrated to show the work of Boulle, the most famous ebeniste of all time. Pieces such as this do not find their counterpart in those of other nations and so are best accompanied by contemporary (Louis XIV) furniture such as the chair and table on Plate 143 B and C. They are, however, practically unprocurable and any wealthy connoisseur possessed of such examples would probably own museum pieces of other nationalities with which they might (notwithstanding differences) be placed in such a residence. Reproductions are made of the fine furniture of this and the succeeding reigns, but their cost is necessarily great.

While the chair and table just referred to are distinctly ornamental, it will-be seen that they go excellently well with the handsome contemporary marqueterie cabinet of William. and Mary on the same plate (Plate 143 D). The three are all dignified, and the resemblance of the French and English pieces is illuminating to the student of international furnishing: yet differences exist throughout and it will be observed that the three pieces of furniture exhibit as many types of stretcher. These pieces are all of the latter part of the Baroque epoch when classic feeling had re-gained its ascendancy. Earlier French furniture of formal character will be seen in Plate 30 A and B.

The Baroque age provides many more intimate and homelike forms than the preceding era and these are exemplified by the William and Mary and Queen Anne furniture of England and analogous pieces in other lands.

The Italian red lacquer armoire (Plate 142 B) and the French and Venetian escritoires on Plate 146 are fine specimens of Continental work, while two beautiful chests of drawers are exhibited in Plate 147 C and D. The seating-furniture is also of great interest. The form of chair usually designated as William and Mary really originated in Portugal and a Spanish example is shown to the left in Plate 148 B. The chair below it shows the Chinese influence acquired through foreign commerce. Those at the top of the plate show affinity with the earlier Yorkshire English chairs. The Portuguese chair (Plate 149 A) and settee (Plate 149 C) are fine and desirable pieces. Spanish Baroque and Rococo pieces will be seen in Plate 25.

Special attention is called to the two chairs Plate 148 B centre and D because they parallel a group of furniture not so far considered—the plain forms of Queen Anne-early Georgian with the phase of Chippendale derived from them, with which these chairs are analogous. This furniture is Baroque ,and yet it requires some special consideration apart from the rest, for it is a group having no parallel in France and, indeed, no close affiliation with the furniture of England either preceding or following it.

The period is contemporary with the last years of Louis XIV and the most of those of the Rococo, but how wonderfully different its furniture is from the mobiliary forms of the same years in France ! The reason is evident during the reigns of William and Mary and of Queen Anne these Dutch forms came in and persisted during the two following Hanoverian reigns. The Dutch influence had, of course, arrived with the accession of William and Mary, but the earlier con-tours of that period were different from those of Anne and were more in accord with other Baroque mobiliary forms.

The architectural furniture and those pieces of cabinet-work which extended to the floor (without legs) retained a fair degree of dignity and impressiveness, though simple, and the ornately carved consoles and chairs were sufficiently ornamental and Baroque; but the plain highboys, chairs, settees, and the like, with the typical plain cabriole leg and club foot, form a genus apart.

Now, what shall we do with this admirable, home-like furniture? It seems to the writers that in houses not stately, classic or formal, where the more intimate forms of the Baroque epoch are employed, that these might well be used in such apartments as men's rooms, bedrooms and living-rooms without undue incongruity.

Or, a house might be very delightfully furnished with this furniture, fine Dutch chests, and the like, some pieces of the William and Mary reign, and relieved with Italian and Spanish furniture following the same general lines. Some lacquered furniture should be used, it being a specialty of her reign. The southern pieces were often painted and decorated. The Oriental touch would also be quite in order, and blue and white porcelain especially appropriate. With such resources as these a charming result could be obtained. The latter part of the period introduced the use of mahogany, but that would sufficiently well accompany the usual walnut if the finish were the same.


To sum up our investigations, then, we have seen that the English fixed background of this epoch is home-like, whether handsome or more simple ; that the very Baroque manifestations of the French interior are interesting and curious rather than particularly desirable for use to-day; that while certain Classic tendencies asserted themselves in the reign of Louis XIV the word best describing its general result is pompous; that the Italian architectural background is very ornate but generally good, and is therefore suitable for those who desire such houses; that the Spanish interior is attractive and so available for parts of America where Spanish influences prevailed but rather alien to the East and Middle West. In general, therefore, it would seem best to employ the English background or one of the simpler Renaissance forms.

As to the furniture, it was observed in a former chapter that unless we wish a museum effect the more satisfying result will be obtained if the furniture of the country chosen for the background prevails, being relieved by the use of appropriate and interesting pieces of other nationalities.

We should not show taste and discrimination by placing together the rigidly severe furniture of the earliest Renaissance with that redolent of Baroque ornament; but there is a sliding scale between the two where we may find many companionable pieces.

If these periods have been fixed upon for a scheme of decoration we should decide upon the general degree of handsomeness to be observed. There should not be a confusion of impressive and non-impressive forms, though, of course, there may be a piece de resistance or two with usually simple furnishings and this will level up the general effect.

Doubtless many more informal and homelike pieces existed in the homes of the bourgeoisie of the early days we have been considering than we now know of ; they have likely perished, and it is to be remembered-that it is, usually only the more elaborate forms that are preserved in the stately buildings of the past and in museums, books and pictures.

Home | More Articles | Email: