Biedermeier Architecture

17 Nov
  A Biedermeier interior, Berlin: fitted carpets, unified window and pier-mirror draperies, and framed engravings in a restrained classicising style Vienna Stadttempel Synagogue
     
Biedermeier

In Central Europe, Biedermeier refers to work in the fields of literature, music, the visual arts and interior design in the period between the years 1815 (Vienna Congress), the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and 1848, the year of the European revolutions and contrasts with the Romantic era which preceded it. The style corresponds to the Regency style in England, Federal style in the United States and to the French Empire style.

Literature and music

The term Biedermeier comes from the pseudonym Gottlieb Biedermaier, used by the country doctor Adolf Kussmaul and the lawyer Ludwig Eichrodt in poems, printed in the Munich Fliegende Blätter (Flying Sheets), parodying the poems of the Biedermeier era as depoliticized and petit-bourgeois. The name was constructed from the titles of two poems (Biedermanns Abendgemütlichkeit (Biedermann’s Evening Comfort) and Bummelmaiers Klage (Bummelmaier’s Complaint)) that Joseph Victor von Scheffel had published in 1848 in the same magazine. As a label for the epoch, the term has been used since around 1900.

Typical Biedermeier poets are Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Adelbert von Chamisso, Eduard Mörike, and Wilhelm Müller, the last two of which have well-known musical settings by Hugo Wolf and Franz Schubert respectively.

Biedermeier can be identified with two trends in early nineteenth-century German history.

The first trend is growing urbanization and industrialization leading to a new urban middle class, and with it a new kind of audience. The early Lieder of Schubert, which could be performed at the piano without substantial musical training, illustrate the broadened reach of art in this period. Further, Biedermeier writers were themselves mainly middle-class, as opposed to the Romantics, who were mainly drawn from the nobility.

The second trend is the growing political oppression following the end of the Napoleonic Wars prompting people to concentrate on the domestic and (at least in public) the non-political. Due to the strict publication rules and censorship, writers primarily concerned themselves with non-political subjects, like historical fiction and country life. Political discussion was usually confined to the home, in the presence of close friends. This atmosphere changed by the time of the revolutions in Europe in 1848.

Architecture

Biedermeier architecture is marked by simplicity and elegance, exemplified by the paintings of Jakob von Alt and Carl Spitzweg. One of the most elegant surviving Biedermeier buildings is the Stadttempel in Vienna. Through the unity of simplicity, mobility and functionality the Biedermeier created tendencies of crucial influence for the Jugendstil / Art Nouveau, the Bauhaus and the 20th century.

Furniture design

Biedermeier was an influential style of furniture design from Germany during the years 1815-1848, based on utilitarian principles. The period extended later in Scandinavia as disruptions due to numerous states that made up the German nation were not unified by rule from Berlin until 1878. These post-Biedermeier struggles influenced by historicism created their own styles. Throughout the period emphasis was kept on clean lines and minimal ornamentality; as the period progressed, however, the style moved from the early rebellion against Romantic-era fussiness to increasingly flourished commissions by a rising middle class eager to show their newfound wealth. The idea of clean lines and utilitarian postures would resurface in the twentieth century, continuing to the present day. Middle- to late-Biedermeier work in furniture design represents the a heralding towards historicism and revival eras long sought for. Social forces originating in France would change the artisan-patron system that achieved this period of design, first in the Germanic states and then into Scandinavia. Of course the middle class growth originated in the English industrial revolution and many Biedermeier designs owe their simplicity to Georgian lines of the 1800s, as the proliferation of design publications reached the loose Germanic states and the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The Biedermeier style was a simplified interpretation of the influential French Empire Style of Napoleon I. He introduced the romance of ancient Roman Empire styles, adapting these to modern early 19th century households. Biedermeier furniture grew out of the French Empire Period, but used locally available materials such as cherry, ash and oak woods rather than the expensive timbers such as fully imported mahogany. Whilst this timber was available near trading ports such as Antwerp, Hamburg and Stockholm, it was taxed heavily every time it passed through another principality. This made mahogany very expensive to use and much local cherry and pearwood was stained to imitate the more expensive timbers. Stylistically, the furniture was simple and elegant. Its construction utilised the ideal of truth through material, something that later influenced the Bauhaus and Art Deco periods.

Many unique designs were created in Vienna. This is because the young apprentice was examined on his use of material, construction, originality of design, and quality of cabinet work, before being admitted to the league of approved master cabinetmakers. Furniture from the earier period (1815-1830) was the most severe and neoclassical in inspiration. It also supplied the most fantastic forms which the second half of the period (1830-1848) lacked, being influenced by the many style publications from England. Biedermeier furniture was the first style in the world that emminated from the growing middle class. It preceded Victoriana and influenced mainly Germanic-speaking countries. In Sweden, Marshal Bernadotte, whom Napoleon appointed as ambassador to Sweden to sideline his ambitions, abandoned his support for Napoleon in a shrewed political move. Later, after being adopted by the last Vasa king of Sweden who was childless, he became Sweden’s new king Karl Johan. The Swedish Karl Johan style, similar to Biedermeier, retained its elegant and blatant Napoleonic style throughout the 19th century.

 

Biedermeier furniture and lifestyle was a focus on exhibitions at the Vienna applied arts museum in 1896. The many visitors to this exhibition were so influenced by this fantasy style and its elegance that a new resurgence or revival period became popular amongst European cabinetmakers. This revival period lasted up until the Art Deco style was taken up. Biedermeier also influenced the various Bauhaus styles through their truth in material philosophy.

The original Biedermeier period changed with the political unrests of 1845-1848 (its end date). With the revolutions in European historicism, furniture of the later years of the period took on a distinct Wilhelminian or Victorian style.


Biedermeier Period commemorative coin

The Biedermeier Period Silver Coin

The Biedermeier Period was recently selected as the main motif of one of the Austrian silver collectors coins: the 20 euro Biedermeier Period commemorative coin, minted in 11 June 11 2003. The obverse of the coin shows a premature steam locomotive (the AJAX) on Austria’s first railway line, the Kaiser Ferdinand’s Nordbahn. The AJAX can still be seen today in the Austrian railway museum. The reverse of the coin shows a portrait of the famous statesman, Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich. Behind him is a map of Europe as redrawn at the Congress of Vienna after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte.

References
Jane K. Brown, in The Cambridge Companion to the Lied, James Parsons (ed.), 2004, Cambridge.

 
Biedermeier and Vormärz

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Napoleon brought fear and terror to Europe. After his defeat at Waterloo, his victorious opponents set about rebuilding Europe at the Congress of Vienna; and in Austria, pre-revolutionary conditions were re-established under the iron heel of Prince Metternich. During this period, known as Vormärz, the masses lived in poverty, and even middle-class citizens enjoyed very few freedoms. Dancing became an `opiate of the people;’ Strauss and other composers of the waltz competed for fame, and ballet and theater – albeit a theater much subject to censorship – were typical Viennese entertainments. It was also a period of technical innovation, with the introduction of the steamship and steam railway, sewing machines, gas lighting, and mass-production of various kinds. But the `Biedermeier person’ prided himself on his artistic taste, and preferred craftsmen’s work to machine-made items. Furniture was simple and functional. Tableware and glassware, adorned with transparent miniature paintings of landscape motifs, portraits, flowers and animals, became a Viennese speciality; porcelain flourished, as did fashion, which became simpler and free of earlier pretentiousness. In architecture, the influence of Neo-classicism was still in evidence, but domestic architecture for the middle classes became simple and modest. In painting it became the custom to copy nature. Biedermeier landscape painting, though not without atmosphere or feeling, is laboriously detailed and precise. In portraiture, bourgeois realism prevailed, enhanced by subtly observed psychological detail. Cosy idylls of family life were popular, for the bourgeois parlour, seen as a place of refuge from rough reality, was at the very heart of the Biedermeier ethos. But the most typical Biedermeier painting was the genre picture. In 1848 another revolution took place in Paris, and on March 13, the people of Vienna also rose. They were promised a constitution, and the lifting of censorship. Metternich, after more than thirty years in power, resigned and fled. The Biedermeier age was gone for ever.

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