Thursday, January 18, 2007

Decorating American Style Part II:
From Gothic to Colonial
Inspired by the painting "American Gothic"

Yesterday, we talked about the fact that European Gothic style was introduced in our earliest colonies -- dating back as far as the 1500's. Gothic style has continued to go in and out of favor in the U.S.

Perhaps that's why one of the most famous depictions of mid-western America -- our heartland -- is a painting entitled "American Gothic." Notice the steep angles on the roofs of the barn and the main house. Notice how the upstairs window of the main house is long and narrow with a pointed arch and panes set in a particular pattern. Those are all simplified versions of details that you might find on European Gothic buildings. The painting contains details inspired by the High Renaissance, as well, but the composition is basically "gothic".

This 1930's painting has been so identified with simple American style that it has been parodied in many forms. We've all seen numerous images of celebrities posing as the man and woman in the painting. Paul Newman, for example, has used this image in his line of foods.

Many people think that the artist, Grant Wood, was making fun of America's reputation for being "puritancial", "narrow-minded" and "repressed". Perhaps, this is because the expressions of the two subjects are severe, rather than smiling, and the lines of the bulidings are so straight and neat.

Yet, to accuse Wood of painting "American Gothic" as satire is to misunderstand his entire philosophy of art. Wood, himself, denied that he was in any way making fun of the mid-west. In fact, he was charmed by a Gothic style cottage he saw in Eldon, Iowa. He wanted to portray this cottage on canvas, and he asked his sister and his dentist to pose as a typical American farmer and the farmer's unmarried daughter.

Though Grant had studied in Europe, one of his intentions in painting "American Gothic" was to oppose European abstract art. Wood was a Regionalist -- one of many midwestern painters who sought to capture the flavor of his region's everyday life on canvas. Regionalists believed in using representational images, and they resisted the abstract movement of modern art. While each Regionalist had his own idiosyntric style, all were united in their humble, rural, conservative, anti-Modernist approach to painting. In "American Gothic", Wood was attempting to evoke a slice of the mid-west, not to poke fun at it.

The "American Gothic" painting is just one window into how America has been influenced by medival Europe's Gothic style. Since Gothic style has periodically influenced our culture, maybe we should define it. That way, we can understand its impact on our surroundings.

Gothic style flourished during the high and late middle ages. It was especially prevalent in Europe during the 12th to 15th centuries. We associate it most with great cathedrals, but it was used in homes and other buildings, as well.

The most notable elements of Gothic architecture are the pointed arch and high vaults. During the middle ages, architects developed the technology to build the high spires, the vaulted ceilings, and long narrow windows. As you can easily see, even from Grant's Wood's painting of a faint echo of Gothic style, the lines of Gothic style point upwards. Thus, Gothic style was a favorite of Cathedral builders. They hoped that the long, tall lines would inspire people to set their minds on things above, and not just on the earthly realm.

Gothic style was not reserved for Cathedrals alone, however. Forts, palaces, and ordinary houses and shops were built along Gothic lines. Many exquisite tapestries hung on Gothic walls, at least in the homes whose owners could afford them. These tapestires were not only decorative, they helped keep the builiding warm.

Gothic furniture was massive, with leather straps and iron hinges. The moveable chest was an important piece of furniture in Gothic homes. It could serve as seating, house treasures, and be easily moved in case the family needed to evacuate from a plague, a fire, or an invading army.

In the beginning, the Gothic styles of England, France, Holland, Italy, Germany, and Spain all differed from one another. They gradually moved towards a more international Gothic style. Our colonial history was greatly shaped by all of the countries I just mentioned, and you can see traces of their different styles in our architecture, furnishings and gardens.

While our earliest European settlers still clung to Gothic styles, they were truly children of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. The Renaissance, which means "re-birth", started in Italy and spread outward from there, reaching the British Isles last of all the European countries. Like Gothic style, each European country experienced the Renaissance in its own way. The Renaissance overlaps with Gothic, as it happened roughly from the fourteenth through the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.

It's impossible to describe Renaissance style in one short article. But, one thing is obvious: The Renaissance bean the style of looking back to the classic days of Rome and Greece for inspiration. Furniture continued to be heavy and dark -- at least for a good while. Yet, new themes were introduced: shells, scrolls, amphoras, dolphins, festoons and garlands, vases, urns, and rosettes. Marquetry was also popular; it used squares of wood in interlocking shapes.

The Enlightenment was also dominated by an interest in neoclassical styles. In Europe, in the 17th century, Baroque furniture was popular. It was heavy, austere, and intended to evoke silence or a feeling of awe. In the 1700's, Baroque faded before Rococo, which was light-hearted, opulent, and delicately rounded in style.

Our colonists interpreted Gothic, Renaissance, and Enlightenment styles far more simply than Europeans did. In the beginning, this was out of necessity. Many people made their own furnishings or bought them from local tradesmen, some of which lacked the skills of their European peers. Settlers often had to sacrifice finery for the sake of practicality and frugality.
Many American colonists also had religious, moral, or philosophical objections to creating homes, churches, and public buildings that were too opulent. For many reasons, the rococo splendor of Versailles would have been out of place in Colonial America.

Even the colonies' wealthy aristocrats, who were building large plantations and fine houses with elegant furnishings, faced these dilemmas. These wealthy settlers created what I think are some of the world's loveliest homes, farms, and gardens. Yet, even the finest American colonial plantations were less grand than the country estates of European nobility.

Today, when we speak of "American Colonial style," we don't think about our early Gothic or even Renaissance influences. We think specifically of the British-inspired style that had developed in America by the 1700's.

By this time, recognizable elements of a typical British inspired American home were pitched roofs, a central entryway that led to a long, great hall, and evenly spaced windows. Furniture was less massive than the early Gothic styles, and had more delicate lines. American furniture makers drew from William and Mary (1689-1702), Queen Anne (1702-1714), Georgian (1714-1830) and Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779). But, they interpreted these styles in a uniquely American way.

The following excerpt from an article on Colonial style describes common colors used in American colonial interiors: "In the less affluent Colonial homes, earth-toned colors were most often chosen. White, creamy yellows, almonds, ochres, reddish and chocolate browns, beiges, taupes, and muted greens were common. The pigments and dyes came from native plants, soils, and minerals.

In affluent homes, color choices were broader. Because blue pigment was rare and therefore expensive, it was a color many people aspired to. It became one of the signature colors of the era.

Also common were various shades of green, ranging from clean pastel, sea and grass shades, to deep muted olives. Pinks were also popular—especially in bedrooms, dining rooms and parlors. Red was most often used as an accent color, notably inside cabinets and china hutches.

Shades of gray, black and deep brown were employed for wood trim and floorboards, and were common to nearly all homes."

Some colonists carted china and silver with them to the new world, or they paid to have it shipped to them. But, many Colonial homes used heavy pewter or wooden tableware. If you are seeking to create an authentic Colonial look, be sure to use lots of pewter dishes and accents.
American Colonial style fell out of favor right after our Revolution. However, it experienced a revival in the 1880's. I am not sure, but I imainge this was because we celebrated our Centenniel in 1876 and people were sentimental about our beginnings. Since the 1880's, American Colonial style has never truly gone completely out of fashion. It was especially popular durng the early sixties and it came round again at the time of our Bi-centenniel in 1976. American Colonial is a traditional style that always seems right. No matter what other styles are in vogue, you can always find paints, fabrics, and furniture to create a Colonial theme in your house.

Keep in mind, that while British inspired styles were predominant in our Colonial Days, many places were heavily influenced by France, Spain, Germany, and Holland, as well. So, if you love French style, you can create a Colonial American French themed home if you desire. Or, you may be more inspired by early colonial Spanish homes.

Still, if you want to evoke what we think of as "American Colonial", study the British inspired styles of New England and Virginia.

Note that Gothic and Renaissance styles have ebbed and flowed in our country's history. Both have experienced several revivals. In the late 1800's, middle class and wealthy Americans reinvetned Gothic style and took it to a whole, new, ornate level. They favored heavy, elaborately carved furniture, Gothic and Renaissance inspired stained glass windows, and heavy drapes and bed coverings. Unlike the original Gothic houses, Victorian rooms were filled with large numbers of sentimental and decorative bric-a-brac.

Right after the Victorian age, there was a decided backlash against the "fussiness" of Victorian Gothic revival. People pulled down their heavy drapes to let more sunshine in, and they exchanged heavy Victorian furniture for lighter styles.

Later, Americans revived their interest in Gothic and Renaissance styles. They have been espeically popular in the last few decades. Today, even homes that are meant to be contemporary in style pull togther various design elements from Gothic and Renaissance styles.

We often think of America as being a young country. Perhaps, we are. But, we mustn't forget that we have a rich colonial history, as well as many long and deep ties back to the old World. We also mustn't forget that native Americans had their own ancient cultures, which influence our American style as well.

Around our Bicentenniel, a new American style was born out of our unique heritages. It was quickly dubbed "American Country". American country is a fun, eclectic style with lots of whimsical furniture and decorations. Though it is inspired at heart by rural America, it is much more playful than the real, traditional American farmhouse. Originally, American country stuck pretty much to traditional Americana or to Southwestern styles. But, it continues to evolve.

Lovers of American Country style sometimes borrow elements from French Country or British Country. But, we have to be careful here. True French and British country styles evovled from the way that the upper classes in those countries decorated their country mansions. American country, however, is meant to be reminiscent of an average American farmhouse. So, be careful not to borrow from traditional English or French country styles in a way that clashes with American Country's folksy message. If you do borrow English or French elements, be sure to think humble farmer's cottage and not country manor.

Cottage style is similar to American country. A main difference is that American Country style is based on the farmouse. Cottage style, on the other hand, evokes images of a little hideaway by the sea or a cozy little home behind a rose-covered white picket fence. Most cottage style is feminine and romantic. Some cottage decorating is rustic and masculine; like a vacation cabin in the Adirondacks.

Surprizingly, romantic cottage style allows you to borrow just a little more freely from Britian's and France's elegant, refined country styles. England's Chintz fabrics, France's lovely toiles, and both countries' lovely tea things look surprisingly at home in romantic American cottage decorating. Paintings or prints from Britain's and France's romantic heydey also blend in with a romantic cottage look. Of course, you still have to be careful not to overdo it to the point that you lose the cottage feel. And, these things don't work at all if you are creating a rustic cottage style.

Well, how do you pin American homes and gardens down to one style? You don't. America's population comes from all over the world. You can find an Americanized version of almost every culture there is. Also, some Americans love deocrating that evokes the past, while others are at home with everything that is as modern as can be. And, many of us are at home with an eclectic and fun mix of this and that.

So, whichever style suits you...


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