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The Gold Rush Era (18th Century)

In 1695, gold was discovered in the area known today as Minas Gerais. This event was shortly followed in 1705 by the succession of King João V to the Portuguese crown. João V was an admirer of the court of Louis XIV and    thanks to the flow of gold from the Minas Gerais area of Brazil    was able to become a major patron of the arts. In addition to the building of the monumental palace, cathedral and monastery at Mafra, the court he established in Lisbon became one of the most sumptuous in all of Europe. The King invited exponents of high Baroque art and architecture from Italy, Germany and France to come to Lisbon. He also prohibited the import of furniture and the use of gold on furniture. During the reign of King João V, the design of Portuguese furniture evolves very clearly from the Portuguese National Style through the Baroque to Rococo. However the execution is in a singularly Portuguese style, most unlike the English and French progenitors.

The English influence was strong. Catherine of Bragança, widow of Charles II of England, returned to Portugal in 1692 bringing both her retinue and furniture.  Within Portugal, the English established enclaves in Oporto for the port wine trade and in Lisbon as merchants. One of the components of the Treaty of Methuen (1703) gave preferential tariffs to the import of Portuguese wines to England, as well as ensuring open access for English wool trading to the Portuguese market. Historians cite the Treaty’s economic advantages for England as the cause of Portugal’s subsequent balance of trade problems    which could only be settled using Brazilian gold. Some have argued that this flow of gold was one of the major sources of capital that laid the foundation for England’s Industrial Revolution.

In furniture design, the English presence in Portugal led to the rapid adoption of the cabriole leg and the introduction of new forms such as the side table, gate leg tables, the meia commoda (similar to a low boy) and chest of drawers. Two exceptions to this rule were the mesa bufete and the contador whose production continued throughout the reign of D. João V. Chair styles were a typical Portuguese reimplementation of classic European styles. The splat back was introduced from Holland via England, but paired with extravagantly carved Baroque shell motif crests. During the reign of D. José I (1750-77), the carved crest evolved into full rococo feathers and flower motifs. New feet styles such as claw and ball and club appeared. By using rosewood, Portuguese furniture makers were able to carve very elegant but strong cabriole legs for tables and for chairs, avoiding the bulkiness of similar implementations in walnut and other native woods. Later in the century, the cômoda papeleira (slant front writing desk), mesa da encostar (block front console table) and sofas were introduced. While typical French Baroque decorative motifs such as the shell and acanthus were favored, implementation was predominately via carved, un-adorned wood. Whether by design or as a consequence of the prohibition on using gold, the Portuguese continued with their tradition of using the interplay between dark wood and reflected light as the primary decorative concept allied with the striking beauty of the exotic tropical woods.Unfortunately, because of the catastrophic earthquake and consequent Tsunami that destroyed Lisbon in 1755 there is only a limited number of true D. João V furniture in museum collections.

In Brazil: After the Dutch were expelled they took the lessons learnt from their experience with sugar growing and processing to their Caribbean islands. This fact, coupled with increasing sugar production in both the French and English Caribbean islands resulted in a fall in the world price of sugar. But as so often happens in Brazilian history, a new avenue of economic endeavor appeared to take up the slack. After word of the initial discovery reached the rest of Brazil, one of the largest gold rushes in history occurred. Prospectors came from all parts of Brazil and from Portugal, especially the North of Portugal. As in most gold rushes, it was not the prospectors who made fortunes, but the providers of food and other materials.Communities quickly sprang up in the mining areas, and by the middle of the 18th century there were towns rivaling most colonial American cities in size. By the mid 18th century, Ouro Preto had over 25,000 inhabitants comparable to the then capital of British North America, Philadelphia. The Minas Gerais of the 18th century can still be seen today in the well preserved Baroque colonial towns of Ouro Preto, Mariana, Tiradentes, Diamantine and to lesser extent Congonhas do Campo and Sao João del Rei. Especially in Ouro Preto, the Brazilian Baroque churches of the time can be seen in all their glory. In an effort to control the burgeoning mining output of Minas, the Portuguese authorities forbade the Jesuits, Franciscans, Benedictines and Dominicans from operating in the state.

In the Northeast, the Jesuits had set up their own plantations and competed with the commercial enterprises. The Portuguese crown wanted direct control of the gold trade without the added competition of religious orders who operated outside of the traditional secular administration. Local brotherhoods were formed to finance the construction of churches. Each brotherhood competed with each other to build the most sumptuous churches resplendent with carved and gilded altars and wall decoration and painted ceilings. Gold leaf covers much of the interiors. Such churches as São Francisco de Assis and Nossa Senhora do Pilar in Ouro Preto and Santo Antônio in Tiradentes are exemplary examples of Brazilian Baroque. Architects and artisans were imported both from Portugal and from other parts of Brazil. Famous Brazilian names include de Brito, d’Oliveira, Lisboa (father and son, the famous Aleijadinho or “little cripple) and Ataide.

Even though the locus of colonial Brazil would eventually shift to the Southern states, Bahia and Pernamabuco remained the administrative, cultural, religious and economic center of the country. It would not be until 1765 that the seat of the governor was moved to Rio de Janeiro reflecting the reality of the southward shift of the country. The sugar plantations of the Northeast continued, with the addition of large cattle ranches in the vast, dry interior known as the Sertão. Other export crops were also grown such as tobacco, and cotton and cocoa in the north.

In Brazil, the transition from the Portuguese National Style to the new English/French hybrid is less clearly delineated than in Portugal. King João V had prohibited the direct export of furniture from Portugal to Brazil and although furniture in the new style no doubt arrived at the ports of Salvador and Recifé in the North East, the shortage of domestic pieces before the middle of the 18th century in a clear Portuguese, D. João V style is evidence that styles were slow to change in the colony whether as a result of desire or the shortage of new pieces to use as models.

Rather than adopt wholesale the new styles being adopted in Portugal, the Brazilian cabinet makers took certain aspects of the new styles    cabriole legs, shell motifs and new feet styles    and applied them selectively to existing forms. The first half of the 18th century in Brazil can be said to be one long transition from the Portuguese National Style of the 17th century with almost a direct leap to the Rococo.

We can trace the influence of the new styles prevalent in Brazil through the evolution of existing furniture forms. Although small side tables, like low boys were becoming more commonplace in Portugal, complete with cabriole legs, claw and ball feet and heavily carved aprons, what few pieces in this style that exist in Brazil are somewhat crude. A better example would be evolution of the chair. As in Portugal, the cadeira sola evolved into a high backed chair supported initially on straight legs with double SS or C scroll stretchers but increasingly using cabriole legs with a variety of straight and curved “x” stretchers. In Portugal, influenced by the English, backs evolved in to splat backs retaining their leather seat upholstery. In Brazil, leather remained on both the backs and seats but the seat crest evolved into increasingly extravagantly carved baroque shell motifs.


Fig. 12 Brazilian D. João V Chair 1st Half 18th C (Hardwood and Leather) Museu da Inconfidência, Ouro Preto.

Fig. 13 Brazilian D. João V Meia Comoda 1st Half 18th C (Rosewood and Leather) Bahia.

In the church sacristies, we find immense arcaz, 10 to 20 feet long with multiple drawers and in a recognizably D. João V and later D. José I styles. These immense arcaz, in the first half of the 18th century, such as the one in the Convento do Carmo in Salvador, Bahia were very rectilinear, but the decoration no longer used the PNS motifs of wave and lozenge molding instead relying on a carved corner pilasters and draw fronts with barely raised panels.

Fig. 14 Brazilian D. João V Arcaz 1st Half 18th C (Rosewood) Convento do Carmo, Salvador, Bahia.

It is in Minas Gerais, in the Baroque colonial towns of Ouro Preto, Mariana, Sao João del Rei, Sabará and Tiradentes that we see a singularly different style emerging in the 18th century.

Furniture style developed in a different way in Minas Gerais. The mining towns had an iconoclastic view of themselves    frontier towns away from the fashionable cities of the coast. In the early part of the 18th century Minas Gerais furniture can be described as robust. The prevailing style was a continuation of the Portuguese National style with turned leg tables, heavy arcaz, benches and chests.

Particular to Minas Gerais at this time was the lyre leg table (Fig. 15). Known locally as “Dutch” tables, the lyre leg form is derived from Italian and Spanish forms. Many of the immigrants to Minas Gerais came from the North of Portugal. It was perhaps these immigrants who brought with them this style. The tables were made from local woods such as rosewood, vinhático and cedro, collectively known as the “noble woods”. Table tops were often made from a single, wide plank of cedro. Some examples were up to 4ft wide and banded with darker rosewood. Almost all these tables were made with drawers and would have been used as desks or center tables rather than dining tables. Though simple in design and execution, these lyre leg tables often include expressive decorative carving on the legs and stretchers and better examples also include decorative aprons below the draws adding a stylish twist to the basic style. So popular was this table form, that it would have been found in all manner of homes and offices, from rural farmhouses to the offices of the high colonial officials. The Museu da Inconfidência in Ouro Preto has many fine examples on display.

Fig. 15 Minas Gerais / Goiana Mesa Centro c. Pernas de Lira 18th C Rosewood) , Museu da Inconfidência, Ouro Preto.

Chests produced in Minas were modeled on PNS forms, arcas, caixas and baús. Trim molding was normally in Jacarandá; sometimes losangos (lozenge shaped) decoration was added. In truly spectacular pieces (Fig. 16), tremidos carving and almofadas would be added and would be of a mule chest type with two drawers below the central well. Mounts would have been iron, using the split nail method of attaching hinges, locks and drawer handles.

Fig. 16 Brazilian Arca Mid 18th C (Rosewood and Iron), Notus Gallery.

Appearing in the latter half of the 18th century were traveling trunks made of leather stretched over a wooden box based on Portuguese trunks in use since the 16th century. Brass nails were used to secure the leather, incorporated into decorative patterns. Initially domed, to repel water, later versions were flat, to aid in stacking. Leather trunks designed to be carried by mules have angled brackets on their ends, used to secure the trunk and keep the top level. Originally of brown leather, existing examples of these attractive trunks have aged to black.

Benches were a common form of seating often with carved backs and sides. Chairs tended to be simple, early examples are almost Spanish Colonial in look with a wooden seat. As supplies of hides became more plentiful, leather would have been used for seats and backs.

The 16th century Northern Portuguese tradition of painting furniture was imported with the gold rush immigration on the 18th century. Furniture made from lighter woods such as cedro was painted with a combination of blocks of colors and decorative floral motifs. Chests of drawers, benches, beds and armoires were hand painted directly onto wood. Although originals of these pieces are relatively rare, reproductions of this style are very popular in the US today, the painting style having been extended to forms of furniture that would not have been recognized by 18th century residents of Minas Gerais. Paint was a rare commodity in 18th century Brazil, devoted mainly to religious statuary and the decoration of churches. Only the wealthy could have afforded to paint furniture. Paint in the 19th century became more plentiful resulting in more rustic pieces being painted. As the urban and rural elite came to embrace neo classicism, painted furniture became more of a rural taste.

Fig. 17 Cômoda Policromada. 2nd Half of 18th C São João Del Rey, MG. Museu Casa Brasileira, São Paulo.

The oratório was a very popular piece of furniture. Housing saints and other religious reliquaries these were private altars that almost every home would have had. They varied is size and finish. Fine examples were embellished with paint and gilding. The example below is in the D. José I rococo style with faux marble painting, a common theme in Minas Gerais painted furniture.

Fig. 18 Oratório. 2nd half 18th C (Polychrome Wood), Museu da Inconfidência, Ouro Preto.

There are also examples of gate legged and drop leaf tables but very few in native woods. Given the uses of furniture as described previously, it would seem logical that these would have been of limited appeal there being no practical use for a table of such small proportions and lack of “authority” as compared to mesa bufete and lyre leg tables.

Fig. 19 Table 18th C (Vinhático) , Museu da Inconfidência, Ouro Preto.

Late Baroque & Rococo: It is not until the middle to late 18th century that there is a wholesale shift in Brazilian furniture styles, eclipsing the Portuguese National Style. D. José I, succeeded his father in 1750. A dilettante not given to having much interest in affairs of state, he appointed Sebastiao José de Carvalho e Mello (1699-1782), later to be ennobled as the Marquis of Pombal (1770), as his first minister. Pombal had spent much of his earlier career outside of Portugal as a diplomat to the courts of Vienna and especially London where he had been exposed to new ideas of political organization and of the relative strength of the British mercantile system and Portuguese dependency on it. Pombal recognized that the one source of wealth for Portugal, a resource poor country, was Brazil and he tried to introduce mercantile monopolies in Brazil to control the export oriented agricultural trade. Part of this process was to reinforce the notion that nothing could be manufactured in Brazil, closing down the nascent textile markets.

Within Brazil, the successful plantation owners, cattle ranchers and merchants were becoming wealthier. With no local manufacturing markets in which to invest, this wealth was used, at least in part for luxury items. Part of good living was having good furniture made with exotic woods.

In contrast to the early and middle parts of the 18th century, in the latter half and especially the final quarter we find many fine pieces of furniture made in the D. José I rococo style. Elegant mesas de encostar (console tables), Chippendale style chairs and chair sofas, extravagantly carved beds and day beds, papeleiras (slant front writing desks) often supporting an oratório used to store religious statuary and other icons for private worship, chests of drawers and tables designed for dining. Always made from the solid, there was no use of veneers in Brazil.

As previously discussed, the presence of English merchants both in Lisbon and Oporto has heavily influenced certain aspects of Portuguese furniture design. A rumor that Chippendale even spent some time in Lisbon has never been proven. In Brazil in the last third of the 18th century, the English influence is especially noticed in chairs and sofas with the distinctive Chippendale and Hepplewhite backs appearing as a recurring them. The neoclassical designs of Adam and Sheraton do make an appearance in Brazil, but not until the arrival of the Portuguese court in Rio in 1808.

The mesa de encostar is a very typical Luso-Brazilian piece of furniture. A console table modeled on Queen Anne or Louis XV style tables, but with two drawers (Fig. 20). Supported on cabriole legs, feet are often ball and claw or Dutch (pad, club and angular) style. In the D. José period, the sides of the console table were normally covered with leaf and spray relief carving; the front apron below the drawers are carved with a central rocaille motif. In superior types, the cabriole knee is also carved. Typically constructions use rosewood for the legs and draw fronts with the main carcass is made from vinhático. Drawer fronts were often solid, dovetailed into secondary wood sides. The 18th century in Brazil also witnessed the more general use of brass or bronze for mountings; probably imported from Portugal as stock items replacing the iron handles of the 17th and early parts of the 18th century. More pleasing examples are elegantly proportioned and would have been used to display important family heirlooms such as silver objects.

Fig. 20 Mesa Encostar 2nd Half 18th C (Rosewood), Collection Octalles Marcondes Ferreira.

A chair form that became common in the 18th century was the dobradiça or articulada (folding chair). With a splat back and leather seat these easily transportable chairs were both practical and decorative. Finer examples have delicately carved backs and feet.

Fig. 21 Brazlian Dobradiça Chairs. 2nd Half 18th C (Rosewood and Leather), Notus Gallery.

Chests of drawers, either three of four drawers were supported on short cabriolet legs. Towards the end of the 18th century, the uniformity of the wood was broken up through the use of inlay and marquetry using lighter woods, and occasionally using ivory.

Fig. 22 Brazilian Cômoda 4th Qtr 18th C (Rosewood, Ivory Wood, Redwood & Ivory).

Papeleira or slant front writing desks were produced from well-figured rosewood, and can be somewhat heavy in appearance with heavily carved side pilasters and strong, serpentine fronts. The lowered lid revealed many drawers in the northern European style with often a central colonnaded well hiding a secret compartment. Feet tended to be heavy (not least to carry the weight) and elaborately carved. Apart from the heavy carving and use of rosewood, there is little to tell a Brazilian piece from a Portuguese piece (Fig. 23).

Fig. 23 Bahian Cômoda Papeleira 2nd Half 18th C (Rosewood) Collection of Octalles Marcondes Ferriera.

One of the most extravagant of all Brazilian rococo furniture forms is the bed. Taking rocaille motifs to the extreme, the Brazilian carver created a spectacular finale to 18th century furniture. Some beds retain the four posts from the earlier bilros style but replace the turned headboard with a carved extravaganza of plumes, feathers and foliate motifs.

Fig. 24 Brazilian D João V/D. José Rococo Bed, Mid 18th C (Rosewood), Museu da Casa Brasileira, São Paulo.

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