Decorative Painting and Gilding: Classical Origins, Exotic Influences

The following article by Kevin Cross first appeared in the book:

The Art of Classical Details” by Phillip James Dodd.

The Art of Classical Details


The author Phillip Dodd (left) and I at Phillip’s book signing.


Decorative Painting and Gilding: Classical Origins, Exotic Influences

by Kevin Cross

When we think of classical art and architecture in terms of color, our experience is likely to evoke images in whites and grays, no doubt due to the survival of stone artifacts, and the loss of other objects and surface treatments created with less durable materials.  Though there is evidence to support the assertion that some sculpture and even some buildings were originally painted and gilded, a preference for the notion of a monochromatic architectural environment in antiquity prevails to some extent, at least for exteriors.

If we put that discussion aside and shift our focus to exploring the question of artistic authenticity in interiors, we find that we have much more information to consider.  Near the end of the 15th century, the ruins of the Domus Aurea, Nero’s 1st century Roman villa, were discovered. Upon excavation the preserved decoration, in stucco and fresco paint, had a revelatory impact on the artists of the day. The work of Raphael and his team at the Vatican demonstrates their rapid assimilation of the vocabulary and movement of classical ornament; the Loggetta and Loggia are often cited as seminal examples of the classical grotesque style. As perhaps even greater evidence of their mastery, in the refined elegance of the Villa Madama we have not only an authentic interpretation of the past; we also have a sense of the future direction this style would take.

In the mid-18th century, the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii exposed a wealth of historical material, thus deepening our insight into everyday life in antiquity. From direct observation of these and other sites, many artists and architects who were on the Grand Tour at this time returned home with fresh ideas about adapting classical design elements to their own endeavors. William Hamilton’s research and collections stimulated antiquarian interest in the area and contributed to what was called the Etruscan style.  James Stuart’s publications and works distinguish him as one of the early pioneers of Neoclassicism, but it is probably Robert Adam to whom we attribute the highest achievements in synthesizing all of the elements of classical architecture and interior design into a cohesive whole. In his buildings and interiors, in his publications, and most notably in his drawings, we see his attention to every detail, from the placement of the colors and gilding on the ceilings and walls to the design of the furniture that would ultimately occupy the space.

Alongside the continuing development of the Neoclassical style there were other influences on architecture and interiors that made their appearance, though none of these would ever achieve a dominant position, especially in reference to domestic architecture.  We have Gothic Revival efforts such as Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey and the works of A.W. N.Pugin. There was also an interest in the art and architecture of Egypt, fostered by Napoleon’s campaign and the subsequent scholarly publications. From these sources came the inspiration for some aspects of the Empire style of Percier and Fontaine, and the works of Thomas Hope.

One of the exotic influences that might claim the most lasting effect is that of the Far East. Over the Silk Road, art objects and designs from Asia had been entering Europe intermittently for centuries, primarily through Venice. That changed forever when, in 1497-99, Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to India and back, proving that a sea route to the East was viable. By 1543, Portuguese mariners had reached Japan. Without delay, other European nations also turned their naval attention eastward and by the early 1600’s we see the establishment of their individual East India Companies. Though the initial goal of exploration was primarily to discover the source of spices, interest in the other cargo of the returning ships, i.e. porcelain, silk, tea, and lacquer, proved so great that intense effort was soon under way to expand the market. By the middle of the 17th century, the emerging impact of Asian art and design, particularly that of China and Japan, was felt all over Europe. The effect of this generated an enthusiasm for all sorts of Oriental exotica: architectural follies were constructed, gardens were designed in the informal Chinese style, and many stately houses had rooms configured in a fanciful Oriental fashion. Initially, export art such as Chinese screens, both in the colorful Coromandel style lacquer and in gilded black or red lacquer, were dismantled and installed on walls to create a ‘lacquer cabinet’, which served to display the owner’s connoisseurship.  With the demand exceeding the supply, skilled artisans soon began to imitate the decorative effect of lacquer by using traditional painting and gilding materials, to either accurately supplement the original panels to complete a room, or to create a room entirely in a European version of lacquer. To facilitate this, treatises were published with detailed instructions on how to create a lacquer finish to rival that of the Eastern ware, while many other books with engravings of ornamental designs provided suggestions for composition.  Eventually the word ‘Chinoiserie’ was created to describe this phenomenon; this term is now commonly used to encompass almost all aspects of Far Eastern artistic influence, from its earliest manifestations to those of the present day.

Although, for clarity, we tend to examine these various trends as separate, there are many interesting instances of coexistence.  To cite just a few, we have the marvelous Rococo arabesques of Watteau and Huet, William Chambers’ expertise in Neoclassical architecture and Chinese design, and the outstanding collection of Japanese lacquer amassed by Beckford and displayed at Fonthill. Even in more recent times, the taste for combining distinct artistic styles is apparent, as we see in the placement of Japanese art within the interiors of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the presentation of antiquities in modern settings.

Given the popularity of period rooms in major art museums and the consistent attendance of house museums, from Caramoor to Hearst Castle, it is evident that many people enjoy seeing a wide variety of interiors. A glance at the pages of any book or magazine on the subject of architecture and interiors will reveal, side by side with examples of contemporary design, many illustrations of historical decorative treatments, such as landscape murals, Chinese wallpaper, classical grotesques and arabesques, Venetian plaster, gilded composition ornaments, lacquer panels, trompe l’oeil, faux finishes of wood and marble, and so on. From this we can conclude that the ancient desire to have color and texture in our homes is still alive, and the requisite capability of designers and artisans to satisfy that demand is flourishing.