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The 19th century


By Alex Brown





The 19th century was a period of population explosion, revolution after revolution, social and economical struggle. The pace of discovery and development initiated in the 18th century quickened in the 19th century.


The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century began to replace man’s physical power with that of the machine. At the same time, studies on the ‘laws’ of human behaviour highlighted the concept of human culture and individualism.




There was a lack of clear direction towards Art and Design in the 19th century. It is in fact known to have been a PLURALISM OF STYLE present in the period. Every age (so it was thought had to have a definite self image and style of its own). It is useful, therefore to look at 19th century design as a search for an appropriate style for the age: one which retains the unity and discipline of Classicism but the flexibility and humanity of the Gothic and at the same time wanting to create something for the changing taste with the application of modern materials available to them.


2.1    Decoration in the 19th Century


Another very noticeable characteristic of 19th century design is how highly decorative it is. The reason for this is that none of the wide variety of styles available at  the time could solve all of the design problems all of the time.


Some styles were too rigid and inflexible, some were too disorganised, some were too complex, some were too simple for particular projects. Decoration was added either to make products look

different to others (unique) or to make them look similar to one another (part of a familiar style). Decoration was a remedy for the lack of a single clear style in the 19th century.




Meanwhile, in the midst of all this uncertainty a major revolution was taking place in the industrial and economic areas of society whose impact would resolve many of the design & style issues of the age: THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION which started in Britain in the early 1800s. Up to 1800 most of the British population as in other countries worked and lived in the agricultural areas of the country. Industrial production in many cases meant hand-made products made one-at-a-time and in small family-owned factories. Up till then, power for factories had been produced by using water wheels or hand driven machines (e.g. the looms for making linen and fabrics). 


New technological advances, particularly the invention of the STEAM ENGINE (in 1769) changed the whole nature of factory production in the 19th century. When the steam engine was connected up to factory machines, this brought an enormous surge in production of goods. So too when the STEAM TRAIN was introduced (to haul coal supplies in 1812) it revolutionised transportation and the movement of goods. The effects of these developments were:


1.      Urbanisation: the mass movement of people from the country areas to the cities to find work  in the new and large factories.


2.      The Middle Class who had made money out of the new Industrial Age became enlarged and much more powerful economically.


3.      Population growth: Cities doubled and tripled in size within the century as the population grew rapidly.


4.      Production of goods: With a greatly enlarged population, there was a need to produce a large number of new products and buildings to meet their needs.                                                    

3.1    The Effects of the Industrial Revolution on Culture


In the beginning, some felt uncomfortable with the rapid technological progress, seeing it as a disruption to traditions, customs, and mores. They were visualising a world of humans being alienated and degraded by the MACHINE.


The effects of the Industrial Revolution on art and design were direct and powerful for the following reasons:


a)       `Sudden' increase in number of patrons.

         The Industrial Revolution created a whole new class of patrons (clients) amongst the new middle classes who could afford to commission works of art, architecture or other products. Rather than a few rich patrons, designers now had to provide ideas for many different  clients (of  a different taste!)


b)       Search for more flexible design styles.

         Suddenly, there was a huge demand of new functional buildings to cope with the new working lifestyle in the urban cities. The rigid traditional rules of architecture and design made it extremely difficult for designers to come up with totally different solutions to new  design problems.




With the new wealth in modern society brought about by the Industrial Revolution, artists of this period are now dealing new patronage: the triumphant middle class and the national state. Dissatisfied with the subsequent degeneration of art, artist began to create pieces as a sort of personal protest against the public taste.


However, each new mode was challenged, and whatever subsequent responses was challenged in turn. 


Architects, meanwhile, embraced the advance of science for, the new available material enabled the building of a massive scale not possible before. Though some continued the historic styles, there are some who made used of these modern material to voice out their thoughts on the progress of technology.




1.      With the defeat of Napoleon and France in 1814, the Classical/Republican ideal which he and the French represented collapsed. The Republican idea of clarity, order and restraint  gave way to naturalism, nostalgia, sentiment and decoration in art..


2.      They rejected the prevailing taste of CLASSICAL IDEALISM, and called for the ROMANTIC ideals of self-expression.


​3.      In the past certain styles had the authority of History (Classical) or the Church (Gothic)  behind them and a single unified style was accepted as normal for a society. This was no longer the case.


4.      A whole new class of patrons (clients) had arisen - a middle class - created by commerce and industry which widened the range of art works demanded of artists who had to stretch the rules of Classical art to breaking point to accommodate many different needs.


5.      Continual development of any style over a long period of time causes that style to change, to split into different approaches, to completely alter its character.


The artist begins to experiment with colour and shape no matter what the subject of the painting. In doing so, the he creates an obvious split between the technique used and the subject matter within the same painting.


5.1    The Art of Romanticism


Romanticism ultimately meant a kind of artistic freedom.


No absolute authority, system or style - whether Religious or Classical now determined what style (or mixture of styles) the artist should use. The only artistic limit was now to be that of the artist's EMOTION and IMAGINATION. The artists do not reproduce Nature, they INTERPRET it.


5.2    Characteristics of Romantic Art.


1.      The artist is seen as a tragic, romantic and visionary figure.

2.      Experimentation with colour, subject matter & form takes place. Dreamlike, tragic or horrific subject matter is now represented.

3.      The art work becomes important for itself - not the story it portrays.. The painted picture plane (surface) itself is emphasised. Free-flowing line-work and blurred forms and colours merging.

4.      Architecture: mixture of different styles. (Gothic elements are reintroduced into architecture as follies.)


By the beginning of 1800, the art of the Romantic period had become picturesque, sentimental, over-decorative and fantastic. Anything was possible since no one style defined the rules of composition nor was any one style deemed to be superior in all cases to any other. Certain styles were good for some situations, other styles for other situations. For instance, fake Gothic ruins were set amongst the gardens of Classical houses to add interest and amusement to the overall composition (including in some cases, fake Gothic monks!!). The whole effect was that of a carefully constructed stage set. Classicism could no longer give full expression to  new social and artistic attitudes.


6.0    REALISM


PHOTOGRAPHY made its first appearance in 1839. It was able to capture the exact moment of what is ‘real’, ‘true’ or ‘factual’, transforming 3-D reality onto 2-D surface in a second. While some artists challenged photography’s status of being a form of art, others turned to this new medium for composition-study, as much as photographers analysing paintings to improve the artistic quality of a PHOTOGRAPH.


Realism was a movement perhaps most strongly expressed in literature and paintings. (Strengthened by the scientific and technological background of the 19th century). In 1892, Karl Pearson wrote that “science claims for its heritage the whole domain to which the word knowledge can be legitimately applied … It refuses to admit any coheirs to its possessions.” The invention of photography seemed timely for, it aided artists at that period in seeking what is the best possible way to represent REALITY in art.


6.1    The Art of Realism


The genre theme: accounts of daily activities, political events that took place recently, or any subject-matter that described the folk customs and culture, regional and/ or national characteristics are what Realists called for.


6.2    Characteristics of Realism Art


1.      The flat tones, little contrast of light and shade are prominent in paintings. (Use of the PALETTE KNIFE often leaving strong daubs of paints on the canvas.)


2.      The three-dimensional art of sculpture in reflecting Realists’ thinking is seen by the outward expression of tension in Man. The inner feelings/ struggle is expressed by the pronounced.




In the mid 19th Century Paris, a new style of painting began to appear. IMPRESSIONISM was to challenge the 'photographic realism' of the Realists, aiming to give a more accurate record of reality through COLOR AND LIGHT .


Scientific studies of light and the invention of chemical pigments in the period allowed artists to have a new perspective in the formation of colours under DAYLIGHT.


7.1    Characteristics of Impressionist Art


1.      The smooth surfaces and precision of Classical art were transformed into soft, blurred flashes of coloured light. The painting is what appeared before the artist’s eye in that particular light at that particular time of the day.

2.      This was a result of the technique used by the painters where individual colours were applied separately as individual points or brushstrokes: the painting dissolved into a million oints of coloured light.


3.      The heroic reference to Classical subjects gave way to painting of ordinary life in all its complexity and the natural world in all its beauty.


Impressionist artists of this period include: Manet, Renoir, Monet, etc.


8.0    POST-IMPRESSIONISM (from the 1880’s)


The term is to describe a group of artists which saw the need to re-analyse the properties of 3-dimensional space, the qualities of the plane(in the composition), the nature of colour tones, and the symbolic character of the subject. There was a stronger sense of social criticism.


The influence of the Japanese woodblock print and the photographic print is evident.


Artists of the period: Van Gogh, Gaugin, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas etc.




With the availability of STEEL, IRON and GLASS, the design structure of buildings in the 19th century tended to be of prefabricated parts, assembled on site,. As a form of rebellion against the cold reproduction, a group of British designers and artists, who hated the new industrial society with its large dirty cities, its standardised products, its factories and its anonymous character, sought to produce a design style which would humanise the environment and at the same time unify all products under one style.


John Ruskin, an influential writer on art initiated the return to craftsmanship, revitalising the crafts in his present Victorian period.


9.1    Characteristics of Arts & Crafts Movement:


1.      Rejection of the factory-produced goods, seeking a return to a `hand made', craft-based approach to the design of products.


2.      Use of natural materials and colours, flowered patterns, `cottage style' interiors of brick and stone, suggesting simple peasant life.

         (There was also  the growing interest in Celtic art)


Artists: Morris (England), Mackintosh (Scotland), Voysey (England)




ART NOUVEAU (New Art)  was the name of a Parisian shop which specialised in the sale of household products done in a new design. The term later referred to an international approach in painting, sculpture, architecture and most of all, in all of the decorative arts. It aimed to create new decorative features that could be mass-produced.


10.1    The Arts of Art Nouveau


There was certainly an influence of Oriental art, in which the Japanese woodblock print’s expressive flowing line is adapted. As strongly inspired by designers of The Art and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau designers too, looked back at the Rococo style, the Gothic style, and to a certain extend, the crafts of the Middle Ages.


10.1    Characteristics of Art Nouveau:


1,      Uses NATURAL FORMS of plants, flowers and the stems/ branches of plants and vines, etc. or sinuous GEOMETRIC PATTERNS as the grounds of decorative source.


2.      While some architects used the flexibility of iron to create naturalistic ornaments, others made use of concrete (and mosaic) in expressing the sinuous forms of Art Nouveau.


Artists: Horta (Belgium), Gaudi (Spain), amongst others


Unfortunately, in a world of factories and mass-production and an increasing demand for more and more products, neither of these styles offered a realistic design alternative. They could not mass produce products, and nor did they want to.



              Thomas Hardy      :  Far from the Madding Crowd

              Jane Austen            :  Pride and Prejudice

              Charles Dickens     :  A Tale of Two Cities

              Lousia M. Alcott    :  Little Women

              Henry James          :  Portrait of a Lady


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