Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Grecian Couch


Fig. 1 Design for a Grecian couch, attributed to Gillows (active 1730-
1897), c.1820, Lancaster and London. Ink and gouache on paper.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
In the early nineteenth century, reclining was all the rage.  It was considered quite elegant for a woman to appear recumbent on a couch, or daybed, her legs outstretched on the seat while she rested the upper part of her body against one end.  In many of the recent film adaptations of Jane Austen's novels, the Regency-period fashion of reclining on a couch is beautifully depicted in a drawing room scene where a classically garbed female in a high-waisted gown lolls on a daybed arranged with cushions and bolsters.

Fig. 2  Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748-1825), Juliette Recamier,
1800. Oil on canvas. Musee du Louvre, Paris
The Grecian couch (fig. 1), as this seating type was described in the early decades of the nineteenth century, was at the height of popularity during the Regency period in England and the Empire period in France.  The new furniture form appeared in the United States during the late Federal years, 1810-1830. 

The Grecian couch is alternatively referred to as a Recamier, after Madame Recamier, wife of wealthy banker Jacques Recamier and famed leader of Parisian society during the years following the French Revolution.  Napoleonic court painter Jacques-Louis David executed a portrait of Madame Recamier relining languidly on a couch, her back resting against one end arranged with bolsters (fig. 2).

Fig. 3 Couch, 1st-2nd century A.D., Roman. Wood, bone and
glass. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
The Grecian couch was considered de rigueur for fashionable drawing rooms and parlors.  When made as a pair, the couches were typically arranged symmetrically at right angles to the fireplace in the drawing room (fig. 4).   As a result of this placement, the couches projected into the center of the room and occupied a prominent position among the other drawing room furnishings.

Fig. 4  Design for a drawing room at Taymouth in Perthshire,
Scotland, Sir John Soane (British, 1753-1837), 1808. Watercolor
on paper. Sir John Soane's Museum, London


Grecian couches are comprised of a long seat, scrolled ends in which one is typically raised higher than the other and a back that extends approximately either one half or three quarters the length of the seat (figs. 5, 6 & 7).  The seat was usually arranged with a cushion, bolsters and pillows for comfortable reclining.  Sofas of the period exhibit the same scrolled outline, but are easily distinguished from couches by arms of equal height and a back that extends the full length of the seat.

The legs on which couches stand vary from a type called “saber,” borrowing its curved outline from the sword of the same name, to turned legs to carved animal legs terminating in paw feet.  The combination of classical legs and scrolling ends lends the couch an archeological quality while the partial back, which usually curves downwards, adds a touch of elegant asymmetry.

Fig. 5  Grecian couch, c.1825, New York or Philadelphia. Cherry 
with rosewood graining and gilt decoration, brass. Carnegie Museum
of Art, Pittsburgh, PA

Details such as the scrolled ends and saber, turned or animal-shaped legs derive from ancient Greek and Roman furniture. Archaeological investigations into the remains of ancient cultures inspired the European taste for furniture with an “antique classical” appearance.  These methodical studies, conducted during the eighteenth century, uncovered examples of ancient furniture that survived the millennia relatively intact as well as temple fragments, grave steles, vases and urns bearing scenes of daily life that clearly depicted the types of furnishings found in Greek and Roman households.  Such artifacts served as prototypes for European designers and craftsmen who catered to the taste for archaeologically inspired classical furniture during the years from 1800 to 1830.

Fig. 6  Grecian couch, c.1825, Boston, Massachusetts. Rosewood
with rosewood graining, brass. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA

The model for the early-nineteenth-century daybed was the Roman couch (fig. 3). Used in antiquity for the purpose of dining, the couch featured a long seat on which guests reclined.  The seat was fitted with a headrest and a footrest of scrolled profile to facilitate reclining and provided with a cushion to make the couch more comfortable.

Fig. 7   Grecian couch, c.1815-1825, New York City, New York. 
Ebonized wood with gilt decoration, gilding, vert antique. Baltimore
Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD
Grecian couches made in America between 1810 and 1830 emulated primarily English Regency examples with scrolled ends of unequal height and an asymmetrical back. The details and decoration varied according to the client's tastes and size of his pocket book.  Examples were made in a variety of materials including mahogany, rosewood and ebonized wood.  The frames were embellished with different types of decoration such as carving, brass mounts and gilt ornament.  Furniture makers in the cities of Baltimore and New York produced some of the most elaborate and elegant examples of Grecian couches, which featured a combination of carving and gilt decoration (fig. 7).

Fig. 8  Parlor. Picnic House, built c.1835, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


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