The Eclecticism of the Victorian Era
The concept of eclecticism as applied to the arts is well-established. Johan Joachim Winkelmann was the first person to apply this term as a description of the work of baroque era painter Carracci who he interpreted as combining classical and Renaissance elements alike into his paintings. The term “eclectic” as applied to design has indicated a use or combination of a variety of styles from different eras or perhaps origins. Eclecticism is one still applied today to interiors that include elements from a variety of styles or aesthetic groups, i.e., French country, modern, retro styles American Southwest, or several dozen other styles. Interior design that pulls from more than one style must strive towards a cohesiveness and balance even when incorporating multifarious aesthetics and this can be done in many ways, like for example through color, motif, materials, textures and shapes. It is an instance when a designer may have more freedom in choosing elements to include in a space yet must pay close attention as to how each element connects to the whole and other pieces and this requires thought, creativity and attention to detail.
Eclecticism is really a methodology or approach to design. It was during the 19th century that the eclectic took shape in architecture, one that manifested out of the emergence of revival or historicist movements in Britain. Eclecticism simultaneously forwarded the Gothic revival headed by Welby N. Pugin, the Neo-Grec, French Second Empire, Romanesque and Renaissance Revivals, Jacobethean, Queen Anne, and Italianate among others. It was even more extensively and enthusiastically embraced in the United States during the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century when Victorian variations on these historic styles included Carpenter Gothic, Richardsonian Romanesque, Shingle, Stick-Eastlake, and Mansardic or “General Grant”, among others. Eclectic architecture also permeated aesthetics in Australia in the late 1900s and early 20th century. The term was generally applied to exteriors whether it be domestic, commercial or ecclesiastic but could also be applied to Victorian interiors. The crux of eclecticism was a devoted adherence to whatever historic style a design was meant to mimic. By the turn of the 19th century, Eclecticism was popular enough to come to define the interiors of movie theaters and ocean liners.
Interior design in so far as it relates to the term eclecticism means that décor and furnishings are gathered from multiple geographic origins or evoke elements from separate styles, yet are integrated and cohesive on one palate or within one space. This design methodology honed during the Victorian Era is in fact a natural reflection of modernism. The 19th and 20th centuries in the West, unto an era of the post-modern, were years of profound technological advances, exploration and discovery culminating in globalism, prosperity, and literacy. First, the general public of whom were part of a growing middle class had for the first time access to products that were previously out of their economic reach. Also, industrialization, the advent of machine processes and cheaper production and innovation – like that of plywood and cast iron - meant that that many people could afford to buy decorative elements from clocks, to china, to wallpaper, to furniture, to rugs, because they were cheaper. Second, exploration and colonization of far-off places like Asia and Africa meant the importation of exotic products, many of which could be used in decoration – Chinese vases, Persian rugs, etc…. Furthermore, the introduction of the railroad and steamships allowed many to travel across the country or abroad to view the world for themselves, and reading about these distant lands in widely published books, newspapers and magazines whetted their appetite for alien aesthetics. The printed world also familiarized people with the wide variety of historic styles in use – the Beaux Arts style or Louis XIV revival in France could be well understood in Chicago. Unfortunately, mass production and wide availability of products was coupled with a decreased quality in manufactured goods which often added a sense of kitsch or tackiness to popular decorative art.
The Victorians came to decorate their homes and other spaces in accordance to this newfound worldliness and cultural discovery. Curiosity cabinets - those that would became what we know today as curio cabinets - where a reflection of this. The wood and glass storage pieces had shelves that could house a variety of objects exotic, strange and novel, a quaint, interactive addition to a room that piqued the interest of visitors. Eclecticism extended to furniture design as well. Oriental production methods and design were used in some pieces, such as Japanese lacquer or Jappaned metal or the ottoman (Turkish divan). The Victorian Era meant fair use of multiple types of design in furniture production. Victorian Gothic, Elizabethan and French Renaissance Revivals, and Louis XIV Revivial/Second Empire were popular styles for chairs, commodes, beds, tables, benches and settees. However, the materials of which they were made were native to the 19th century. Paper –mâché or cast iron were popular materials of which to make furniture.
Eclecticism was not a definition of a specific aesthetic but a description of a sensibility towards design that borrowed from historic example and chose from them or integrated them eclectically. The innovation of Eclecticism is that it allowed for choice based in individual taste, necessity and inclination. This in itself represented a society freer than before, with more wealth distribution, from the restraint of class and aesthetic exclusion. From hence came the emergence of many more artistic and stylistic movements and by the 20th century, the Avant-Garde, that would prove to be innovative, experimental and sometimes shocking approaches to art and aesthetics that contrasted greatly with that produced by and for the status quo.
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