History of the Decorative Painter – Part 2


Here is the second part of the series of the History of the Decorative Painter.  During the 17-19th centuries, the craft of decorative painting deserves the title as “The age of Enlightenment” as it exploded in popularity along with fantastic technological advancements that would shape the artisan trade as we know it.
17th & 18th Centuries:

18th century interior
As a continuum of the end of the Renaissance, the European aristocracy flaunted their wealth in sumptuous styles of decorative painting.  Masterful gilding, marbleizing, trompe l’oeil moldings, and grisaille ornaments could be seen in such magnificent residences as the Palace of Versailles.   These residences of kings, dignitaries, and churches employed a large number of decorative artisans.

ornate interiors

There was an absolute fascination for the classical style.  Interiors were elaborately painted with multiple colors and intricacy that became the norm.  Since the interior rooms were decorated with more patina’s, striping, and ornate millwork, the “artists” began to transition to the easel paintings and were less utilized as “artisans” for interiors (although there were an abundance of murals on ceilings and hand-painted scenes in panels).

ornate interiors

The decorative painting artisan began to depend on “house painting” as a trade.   Interiors walls were painted with the first house paint made of pigment and rabbit skin glue.  It was often thick and dried fast, so there were “ropey” brush marks that are indicative of these times.


Lacquer objects were first imported into Europe from China and Japan during the 16th century, and European methods of lacquering and varnishing were invented in the early 17th century.   Oil paint formulations were updated once more, and the primacy of oil painting, which was maintained by artists like Poussin, was continued into the 18th century by the likes of Chardin and Boucher. At this time, transparent watercolor and gouache first flourished as fine-arts media.

17th century painting

19th Century:
During the 19th century, decorative painting reached glorious heights.

19th century interior

From up until the 1820’s, the Empire style, which was popular not only in France but throughout most of Europe, was the second phase of the Neoclassicism design movement.  This style made extensive use of marbleizing, wood graining, trompe l’oeil moldings and architectural ornaments, stenciling, metal patinas, and all manner of simulated textures and patinas.  The burgeoning middle and upper classes began decorating their homes lavishly, rivaling the elegance that was once reserved for nobility.  Wealthy industrialists in Europe and the United states began buying or building palaces that they filled with decorative painting.

empire style interior

In America, this style was known as the Federal style which was based on Roman Empirical design.  Public buildings, stores, and restaurants were painted to impress.
This movement created such a demand for decorative painting that schools were founded and professional standards and practices were established by such prominent decorative artists like Thomas Kershaw in England.

european school

The training was rigorous and intense.  Children started at 13 years old and trained and apprenticed for 50-60 hours a week –  minimum.  At these schools, very little emphasis was placed on murals or landscapes, but much more on woodgraining, marbleizing, glazing, striping, ornament, trompe l’oeil, gilding, and sign painting.   With this surge of training, came a wonderful distribution of books, trade magazines, and folios for the decorative painter.


This is the best part, for me – I collect any that I can get my hands on!
This demand also fostered the emergence and growth of art materials manufacturing of paints, varnishes, brushes, and other tools.  These materials were once made by individual artisan companies, but were now mass produced, with paints and varnishes sold in tubes and cans.  Advancements in paint chemistry produced new pigments such as ultramarine blue and vermillion.

house painters
In fine-art painting, the work and techniques of Academy-trained artists such as Ingres, Delacroix, and David were dominant prior to the rise in the late 19th century of the Impressionist and Neo-Impressionists, including Monet, Renoir, Seurat, Pissarro, and Van Gogh.    These fine artists who were classically trained but rejected the academic dogmas of previous centuries.

19th century painting

These artist began to create for themselves, without a contract, and then exhibit the works.  Of course, as we know, many of these artists died poor and unappreciated while alive.  But they were such trail-blazers that in a matter of 50 years, they managed to undo 3,000 years of norms and officially became artists and not “artisans”.

If I could go in a time machine to any era, I’d land myself in mid, 19th century France or New York.  What a great time for decorative painters (not so great for life expectancy, though)!

Click here for Part 1

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  1. Who painted the artist with the half naked woman at the piano?

  2. Nicolas Ayt says:

    Thank you for this lovely trip through history of decorative arts. I love the photos used to illustrate this but it would be better to know what’s in these pictures.

  3. Alfieri says:

    Referring to my previous post concerning the decorative artist who worked on the ceilings at Kelham Hall; The name of the decorative artist is I believe (if I have spelt it correctly) Varreau.

  4. Alfieri says:

    I am seeking information on a French decorative artist specialising in stencil work and whose work is brilliantly executed at Kelham Hall in Nottinghamshire, England. He worked on this Sir George Gilbert Scott building from 1857 to 1861 decorating in exquisite style the ceilings and wall throughout Kelham Hall.

  5. I can totally see you in the 19th century Pierre! Thanks for this interesting tour through history.

  6. thank you so much for taking the time to compose these Pierre.

  7. Pierre,
    Thanks for the article. Is there any one book or a list of books that you would recommend.


    • Pierre Finkelstein says:

      Most of my favorite books are very rare and in French. Maybe in another post someday, I’ll scan some titles. — until then, my reference collection of books on my website (fauxbrushes.com) are books I use most often for ideas and design.

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