Imagine a well-to-do family in the early 19th century taking tea in their living room on nicely-upholstered, elegant chairs while listening to their daughter perform a delightful piece on the piano. That’s the Biedermeier era.
- Refers to a period of relative conservatism between 1815 and 1848
- Art and culture veered away from social commentary or experimentation to focus on simple pleasures and the domestic idyll
- Once perceived negatively but now valued for its contributions to interior design and other artistic media
- See also:
What is Biedermeier?
(Side chair – one of a pair – ca. 1815–20 from the circle of Josef Danhauser; Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Many countries have their resonant historical eras that may be associated with particular social, cultural, political, industrial, and/or scientific developments. In the UK, we might think of Victorian times or the Regency (my favourite).
Obviously, Austrian history doesn’t fit nicely into eras based around the reign of British monarchs. We have no concept of the Regency here, for example. Instead, we have our own equivalents.
The Biedermeier, for example, covers a 30+ year period between 1815 and 1848 (two rather auspicious dates in European and Austrian history).
1815 saw the defeat of Napoleon and the reorganisation of political Europe at the Vienna Congress (held, unsurprisingly, in Vienna).
In Austria, the Emperor sought to shore up established structures, so the authorities cracked down on free thinking and political activism. Censorship was rife. Not that it helped much in the end, since 1848 saw the Austrian empire suffer revolution like much of the rest of the continent.
Why is it important?
(Watercolor painting of a young woman at her desk by Johann Nepomuk Ender, taken from a writing case, 1828; Wien Museum Inv.-Nr. 56189; excerpt reproduced under the terms of the CC BY 4.0 license; photo by Birgit and Peter Kainz)
The term Biedermeier now tends to refer to the style and culture of that era, rather than the specific period of history.
Given the political situation, much of life retreated behind closed doors. Conservatism and simple pleasures, rather than artistic and intellectual experimentation, characterised the times. The middle class grew in numbers, and the arts reflected their needs and interests.
As a result, the Biedermeier became associated with genteel domestic idylls, elegant interiors and furniture design, paintings of landscapes, families and living rooms, music suited to performance at home (so-called house concerts), lightweight theatre and public dances, walks in the park, and similar.
Such a sociocultural environment promises little in the way of innovation.
(Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Christtagsmorgen, 1844, Oil on wood, 64.5 x 84.5cm, Belvedere, Wien, Inv.-Nr. 2129 © Belvedere, Wien; Reproduced with permission under the terms of Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 4.0.)
However, Biedermeier art and design yielded much that we rate highly today: songs by Schubert, waltzes by Johann Strauss (senior), and landscapes by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, for example.
Perhaps the strongest association is with furniture: the kind of simple, elegant, but sophisticated furniture you might associate with an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, for example.
Indeed, the Biedermeier brought us bentwood production processes that would later create the famous No.14 chair, furniture catalogues, and whole-room solutions for those redecorating their homes.
The term is now so well-established that people even talked of COVID Biedermeier in the early 2020s, as we all withdrew behind our own four walls during lockdowns and learned to value simple homegrown pleasures.
Where to learn more?
You’ll come across Biedermeier exhibits in many museums in Vienna, but these locations offer more insight than average:
- The Vienna Furniture Museum has many Biedermeier items, but also full reconstructions of entire rooms with original furniture from that period. You can even sit on Biedermeier chairs and sofas.
- The Schottenstift museum also has a room preserved in all its original Biedermeier glory (with furniture).
- The MAK museum includes a permanent exhibition that covers the period, featuring furniture, tableware, glassware, and similar.
- The MAK also runs the Geymüllerschlössel: a refurbished summer villa decked out in full Biedermeier (and empire) furniture, fittings and interior decoration.
- Biedermeier houses dot the city (my street in an outer district has a couple and is not unusual). However, one or two central areas feature Biedermeier architecture particularly strongly. For example:
- The houses around the Ruprechtskirche church date back to the 1830s
- The Spittelberg area (Stiftgasse, Schrankgasse, Spittelberggasse, Gutenberggasse) has narrow streets and well-preserved Biedermeier houses
P.S. The name used for the Biedermeier probably comes from one Gottlieb Biedermaier (sic), a pseudonym used by two writers who published poetry in the mid-19th century that satirised the preceding era’s conservatism and lack of spirit.
As such, the expression initially carried negative overtones but later morphed into the neutral term described above.