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Coffee and Imperial Brazil (19th Century)

Coffee had been grown in Brazil since the early part of the 18th century near Belem at the mouth of the Amazon. It was not until coffee growing was introduced in the South after 1760 that it became a source of great wealth    particularly around Rio de Janeiro. Between 1798 and 1807 coffee exports grew sevenfold (7). Large coffee plantations were established along the valley of the River Paraiba running some 100 miles or so in parallel with the coast around Rio. Some distance from the major conurbations, these grand plantations existed in a similar vein to the sugar plantations of the previous centuries – self-contained and luxuriously appointed.

In 1807, the Portuguese Royal family and at least 10,000 courtiers left for Rio de Janeiro, escorted by the British Royal Navy, in order to avoid Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. D. Maria I had succeeded her father, D. José I, on his death in 1777. Due to her developing mental illness, her son D. João VI acted as Regent. On arrival in Rio in 1808, João was taken aback by the provincial nature of the city. Lisbon had been rebuilt in a modern style after the devastating earthquake of 1755. Included in the court were many architects, fine artists and men of letters and D. João quickly set about re-modeling Rio in a neoclassical mode. In 1816 he created the Institute of Fine Arts and invited the French painters Nicolas-Antoine Taunay (1755-1830), Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768-1848) and the architect Auguste Grand-Jean de Montigny (1776-1850) as founding members. He also established a national library and a royal printing press. Over the following decades Rio was transformed into a neoclassical city. Public buildings such as theatres were opened and gas lighting was introduced.

Coffee production and exports grew    necessitating improved transportation, better ports and new financial institutions, all adding to the expansion of commercial and social life in Rio de Janeiro. São Paulo also grew when coffee plantings were expanded to surrounding areas. New styles and forms of furniture found favor with the new coffee elite, both in the grand houses of the plantations and in their urban mansions built for their visits to Rio de Janeiro. By 1803 the population of the Rio de Janeiro Captaincy had grown to 245,000 (8) roughly the same as the much larger state of Bahia.

From 1808 onwards, as part of the agreement that brought the Portuguese court to Brazil, the British insisted on the opening of the ports to traders other than the Portuguese. Merchants and artisans arrived n Rio from Britain and other countries such as France to set up workshops and retail establishments catering to the growing population. Immigration from Germany and Portugal was encouraged; especially in the southern states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul where the new arrivals established dairy farms, vineyards, commercial horticulture and breweries. These new immigrants also contributed to the setting up of workshops and an embryonic manufacturing sector. A growing economy also provided the means for travel. Brazilian society expanded contacts with North America, Europe and especially Britain.

The combination of the arrival of the Portuguese court and an influx of British and French entrepreneurs was to profoundly change the fine and decorative arts in Brazil. As in 18th century Portugal, 19th century Brazil would be much more open to new ideas in art and culture. All over southern Brazil, daybeds, sofas, dining chairs and tables, beds, and chest of drawers were recast in a neoclassical light. Fluted legs replaced cabriole; crossbanding, inlay and stringing provided contrast with the dark rosewood. Other woods started to be used such as mahogany, imbuia and peroba. In fact after such a slow progression of styles in the previous three hundred years, these new styles were adopted with remarkable speed. In early 19th century Brazilian furniture, one can detect influences from the English Regency, French Directoire and Restauration and to lesser extent French Empire. (9)

The early Brazilian neoclassical style is known as D. Maria, after Queen D. Maria I. Although she ascended the throne in Portugal in 1777, it was not until her arrival in Rio in 1808 that the style could be said to have had much influence on Brazilian furniture and design. Although not immediately popular with Brazilian society, the “language” of neo classical furniture design started to appear in domestically produced pieces. Legs on case pieces and chairs become straighter, lines become more rectilinear, and geometric stringing and banding, especially with light-colored wood against dark rosewood became the predominant decorative motif. The Portuguese tradition of making distinctive beds was reflected in the D. Maria style bed. This style of bed continues the four-post tradition, but replaces the 18th century rococo carved headboard with a solid headboard. Either oval or an octagon, the D. Maria headboard was inlaid with banding and floral motif marquetry. Primarily of rosewood, these elegant and deceptively delicate looking beds are practical and strong.

Fig. 25 Brazilian D. Maria I. Bed, Early 1800’s (Rosewood and Other Hardwoods), Museu da Inconfidência, Ouro Preto.

One of the earliest styles that emerged in Brazil and not Portugal is referred to as D. João VI style. Of all the styles that were adopted and modified in Brazil, this style is closest to other tropical styles found in the West Indies and India. Caning rapidly replaced leather as the upholstery of choice. Tropical fruit motifs were carved on inset pilasters on case furniture and used as decorative panels to cover joins on canapés, récamiers and daybeds. Caned sofas with sweeping arms and decoratively carved backs were used with soft furnishings to provide comfort with elegance. With a strong, almost English Regency feel, the D. João VI style can be compared to the American Empire style especially as expounded by Duncan Phyphe.

Fig. 26 Brazilian D. João VI Sofa Early 1800’s (Rosewood & Caning), Notus Gallery.

Caned daybeds and récamiers with languid sweeping curved arms and curved end rails were becoming increasingly popular, especially for society ladies. Decoration was simple; a turned cross stretcher at the head and footboard. Legs were flowing curves, again with simple turned cross stretchers. Games tables on carved pedestal bases, two-drawer side tables with turned drawer pulls and decorated with quartered fan motifs, and sofa tables started to appear in very dark rosewood. It is also possible to find caned chairs, with saber legs and scrolled arms.

Fig. 27 Brazilian D. João VI Marquesa Early 1800’s (Rosewood & Caning), Museu do Ouro, Sabara, Minas Gerais.

Fig. 28 Brazilian Directoire Style Chairs 1st Half 18th C (Rosewood), Notus Gallery.

Fig. 29 Brazilian D. João VI Chest of Drawers Early 1800s (Rosewood & Other Hardwoods), Museu da Casa Brasileira, São Paulo.

Found mainly in Minas Gerais is as style known in Brazil as Sheraton Mineira. Typical pieces in this style are caned chair sofas, benches and chairs and small side tables (see Fig. 30). These elegant primarily rosewood pieces are inlaid with light wood stringing. Made from rosewood these delicate pieces are deceptively strong. Small one-drawer side tables, with thin tapered legs and inlaid with floral patterns were prevalent in Minas Gerais at this time. (Fig. 31)

Fig. 30 Brazilian Sheraton Mineira Sofa & Chairs Early 1800s (Rosewood & Other Hardwoods), Museu da Inconfidência, Ouro Preto.

Fig. 31 Brazilian Sheraton Mineira Side Table with Drawer 1st half 18th C (Rosewood & Other Hardwoods), Notus Gallery.

Fig. 32 Brazilian Sheraton Mineira Sofa Early 1800s (Rosewood & Other Hardwoods), Museu da Casa Brasileira, São Paulo.

Also found are caned chairs in the Mineira style. With a saber style leg (and occasionally turned) these simple chairs are in an early 18th century English style with broad top rails and a simple horizontal back cross piece, often inlaid with a lighter wood lotus or fan motif. Although these can be found in sets of four or six, more common they are found in pairs or as singles. Perhaps some anonymous British mining engineer introduced a Sheraton pattern book to the artisans of the area.

The Age of Empire: D. João VI returned to Portugal in 1821, leaving his Portuguese born son, Prince Pedro, as regent. A year later Pedro was summoned back to Lisbon. Refusing, he declared Brazilian independence. He was crowned Emperor D. Pedro I in 1822. On an overland journey to visit the state of Minas Gerais, D. Pedro I passed through an area of forested hills some 40 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. Impressed with the areas waterfalls, forests, massive granite outcrops and temperate climate, he decided to buy a farm and build a summer palace. Other nobles followed and the resulting town that grew up around the palace was later named Petropolis. Today, the summer palace houses the Imperial Museum with a collection of fine furniture, art and the Imperial Crown Jewels.

The years after independence were tense, as the emerging Brazilian political structures evolved and reacted to the competing desires of the slave owning coffee growers and the more progressive urban bourgeoisies. As D. Pedro I was Portuguese-born and prone to absolutism, he was viewed with suspicion by many of the local-born elite. The abolition of slavery was a contentious issue all through the Empire years. The British tried to force the Brazilians to abolish slavery, and in 1831 a law was passed providing for severe penalties for the importation of new slaves. However, this was largely ignored and it was not until 1850 that another law was introduced that treated slavery as tantamount to piracy. From then on no new slaves could be imported to Brazil. In 1831 D. Pedro I was forced to abdicate in favor of his Brazilian born son, also called Pedro. He son was only five at this time, and the country was run by a series of regents until his 14th birthday when he was crowned D. Pedro II. A thoughtful and educated man, D. Pedro II traveled widely in his reign being much impressed by the technological advances being made in Western Europe and the US. He also became interested in photography, appointing Portuguese-born Joaquim Insley Pacheco as court photographer. Pacheco trained in New York in 1855. (Some of his portraits of the royal family are currently in the collection of the New York Public Library.)

With a Brazilian based monarchy and court, a native born nobility was created. In previous generations, only the Portuguese-born were given titles. Unlike the old plantation societies, this new aristocratic elite depended on the crown for legitimacy. Whereas in previous generations court fashions had only limited impact on Brazilian society, under the Empire court style and the desire to emulate them exerted a much stronger influence on fine art and the decorative arts.

During the Brazilian Empire period (1822-1888), new styles appeared in rapid succession (especially when compared with previous centuries) and varied from region to region. As documented by Tilde Canti (10), (writer of the only comprehensive texts on Brazilian furniture) many cabinetmakers, both Brazilian and new immigrants, established workshops in the growing cities. Mechanization came late to Brazil, and furniture was predominately bench made until the end of the 19th century. One of the most famous cabinetmakers was Julião Beranger who arrived in Recife from France in approximately 1816. His son Françisco was also involved in the family furniture business and their distinctive style is characterized by a neo-rococo attention to feather and flora carving and florid C scroll curves. This Pernambucan style is most seen in chairs and sofas, both with caned seating.

Fig. 33 Pernambuco Sofa Beranger Mid 19th C (Rosewood), Museu da Casa Brasileira, São Paulo.

The profusion of styles    French Empire, Rococo Revival, Biedermeier and Louis Phillipe    causes some confusion when trying to categorize different pieces. By the end of the Empire, individual pieces contained so many different elements that the only real description that fits is “eclectic”.

Brazilian Empire was modeled on French Empire especially heavy pier consoles with marble, armoires, chests of drawers and bureaux plats. Examples found in the Imperial Museum in Petropolis are made of mahogany with gilded bronze mounts and were most likely made to order in France. These would then have served as models for local cabinet makers, primarily in Rio de Janeiro where the style was more popular. Canapés and sofas in the Brazilian Empire style incorporated extravagantly carved curved arms with swans and other neoclassical motifs. Legs and feet follow no particular model apart from being curved and carved and normally incorporating some sort of animal style foot. Occasionally, on such an item as an otherwise conforming classical sofa, you will find a turned leg, harking back to colonial times.

Fig. 34 Late Brazlian Empire Style Console 2nd Qtr 19th C (Rosewood and Marble), Museu Histórico Nacional. Rio de Janeiro.

Fig. 35 Late Brazilian Empire Style Sofa Mid 19th C (Rosewood and Caning), House of Braganca, Notus Gallery.

Another style that arrived via immigration is known locally as Estilo Biedermeier. Unlike the original, Brazilian Biedermeier furniture is made using darker local woods and the Biedermeier nomenclature is really applicable when talking about shape and the relatively subdued (for Brazil) carving decoration. Sofas can especially be seen to reflect a Biedermeier influence in form, if not completely in look    low with a gently curving back and curved arms. Legs were curved ending in variations of the claw foot.

Fig. 36 Brazilian Sofa with Biedermeier Influences 2nd Half 19th C (Hardwood), Notus Gallery.

Fig. 36a Brazilian Neo-Rococo Dining Chair 3rd Qtr 19th C (Rosewood & Caning), Notus Gallery.

Dining chairs came in large sets 12, 18, 24 with the most popular being the medalhão (medallion) form in rosewood, a spoon back chair with elegant curved legs with a feet style known as pé-de-cachimbo (literally, pipe foot) (Fig. 36).  More expressive versions incorporated foliate carving on the back crest and on the apron.  To aid rigidity, the medalhão back would often have a vertical support running inside the rails, but behind the caning. These chairs would never have been made with stretchers; the leg and upper backstay were of one piece for strength.

The large sets of chairs where necessary for the huge dining tables found in the grand houses of the coffee barons, both in the city and on the plantations. Often twenty feet in length, many were made in situ. More practical tables were made with a sliding-extension mechanism and leaves following the Georgian model    with multiple sets of turned or reeded legs, curved-ends (though not D-ends) and aprons. Woods used would be imbuia, peroba and vinhático but rarely rosewood. Tables of this form were made in lengths of over 15 feet fully extended.

Fig. 37 Brazilian Dining Table 2nd Half 19th C (Imbuia), Notus Gallery.

A particular form of caned sofa was immensely popular in middle of the 19th century, known locally as Luiz Felipé in Brazil. It is similar to the Restauration chapeau de gendarme style implemented in wood (normally rosewood) and featuring elegant cabriole legs with a pé-de-machimbo, an upward swept back rail and curved arms. These elegant sofas were meant to rest against a wall, giving additional support to the back.

Fig. 38 Brazilian Sofa Mid 19th C (Rosewood and Caning), Notus Gallery.

Rising republican sentiments resulted in the abolotion of the monarchy on November 15th 1889. From then on, modern Brazil emerged. In the preceding years, British capital had help build railroads both in the south and the northeast. Increasing mechanization in agriculture became a feature as the economy industrialized, including the production of furniture. It is for this reason that we have ended the age of Brazilian antique furniture at the abolition of the Monarchy.

Although in native hardwoods, the simplicity and elegance of the early 19th century furniture gave way to an over elaboration, common to furniture in the late Victorian Europe and the US. In the early first half of the 20th century, there were many pieces made in a Portuguese National Style, although these are easily recognizable as the turning is less crisp and lacks flow. Pieces tend to be large and ungainly and incorporate such non-conforming designs such as center die-joined stretchers and vase style turning.

The freshness of the preceding periods would be lost until the emergence of the 20th century designers, Joaquim Tenreiro, Oscar Niemeyer and Sergio Rodrigues.

(7) Leslie Bethel, ed.  Colonial Brazil.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.(8) Leslie Bethel, p. 287.(9) Tilde Canti. O Móvel do Século XIX no Brasil.  Rio de Janeiro: Cândido Guinle de Paula Machado, 1988.(10) Tilde Canti.

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