INVENTORY FROM HEINRICH LEICHTER’S RENOWNED GALLERY INCLUDES ARRAY OF BIEDERMEIER, EMPIRE FURNITURE
By Nathan Shults
In his “first life,” Heinrich “Heinz” Leichter worked as an advertising executive for several large and prestigious international advertising agencies in Germany. In the 1960s, at the height of his career, he fell in love with Biedermeier furniture. Bewitched by its style, he decided to become a dealer, later establishing the first gallery for this type of furniture in Germany.
In 1987, Leichter moved to New York City and opened a gallery in the Village on East 10th. Through research and contributions to academia, his Ritter Antik gallery developed a reputation as the leading authority for Biedermeier furniture in the United States.
Now, more than 150 pieces of furniture from the Ritter Antik inventory are being presented at Heritage Auctions’ fine and decorative art auction scheduled for Dec. 9-10.
Biedermeier’s etymology is rooted in two German words: “bieder,” which means plain and unpretentious, and “biedermann,” which is an honest, upright citizen. The style existed without nomenclature until 1886 when Georg Hirth’s authoritative Das deutsche Zimmer design volume critically analyzed its design contributions. It is also thought that the word’s origins relate to bourgeois-minded newspaper caricatures of Gottfried/Papa Biedermeier. More accurately, the use of Biedermeier is in reference to a period in central Europe between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 ending with the March Revolution in 1848; however, its most familiar association is with furniture.
Leading up to this period, the Napoleonic Wars extended France’s power and political influence throughout the modern European continent, encompassing an area exceeding 332,000 square miles at its greatest extent. Military dominance allowed Napoleon Bonaparte to integrate a range of political and social maxims into regional cultures, spreading the values of the French Revolution.
While most of the vestiges of Napoleon’s conquests have vanished, a few remain. Perhaps one of Napoleon’s more obscure legacies was not martial or political in nature but related to the visual arts, specifically identified in the foundational elements of Biedermeier design.
Napoleon’s appreciation of classicism was overtly apparent – his self-proclaimed title of “emperor” alluded to an ancestry from the leaders of the ancient world. Standardized state-run education included a curricula of modern science coupled with Greek and Latin languages. The formation of the Napoleonic Civil Code simplified law, replacing confusing feudal laws, and was inspired by Roman Emperor Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilus. The iconic Arc de Triomphe was modeled after the Roman Arch of Titus.
These interests in classicism were artistically translated among a wide range of decorative and fine art known as the “Empire” style, examples of which sumptuously filled interiors. Incorporating familiar and recent archaeological discoveries, the design was meant to pay homage to the expanding empire, embracing elements of newly conquered territories and evoking the appreciation of the virtues of the Roman Republic. Painter Jacques-Louis David, who Napoleon appointed as official court painter in 1804, effectively served as the artistic dictator of the empire, advancing an iconic and austere interpretation of classicism meant to inspire citizens to noble action. Sphinxes, palmettes, griffins, pharaoh busts, and warlike elements of classical design were incorporated into decorative art, celebrating the splendor of the ancient world.
However, fondness of the past faced new challenges in the post-Napoleonic era, as a changing demographic would soon influence the continent’s future. The widespread industrialization of central Europe during the first half of the 19th century, coupled with economic crises as a direct result of the Napoleonic Wars, contributed to the rise and proliferation of the urban middle classes. The tenets of Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite from the French Revolution and other democratic movements eventually spread throughout Europe, inciting revolutions in Prussia, Austria, Germany, Italy and France. The bourgeoisie developed as a powerful counter to established aristocracy, demanding simpler and majority-representative governance, which acknowledged the nobility of the private individual.
Art movements are often correlated with changing political and social norms, with each engaging in critical inquiries of notions of power. During the Biedermeier period, expression through the visual arts would exist as a direct interpretation by the bourgeoisie. Leichter relates, “Biedermeier is the only accepted period which was developed by the bourgeoisie for the bourgeoisie.” The development of the style was a modern reclamation – ownership would not belong to the ancients.
Adding emboldened elements of Directoire and Regency forms, Biedermeier cabinetmakers stripped furniture of traces of imperial splendor, rebuking gilt bronze and ornamental excess, instead relying on natural wood grains and ebonized accents to exude lightness, utilitarianism and individuality. As tangible representations of middle-class values, cabinetmakers chose locally sourced woods including ash, maple, birch, beech, and other “blonde” woods, with deference to off-grain and burled cuts. A simplified form did not necessarily mean that pieces could not be sophisticated, and both the middle and upper classes patronized workshops which crafted finer examples that incorporated luxury woods like mahogany and rosewood.
High-quality furniture was produced throughout central Europe during the Biedermeier period, but perhaps the most sought after and elaborate pieces were made in Vienna. By 1823, there were over 900 cabinetmakers in Vienna. The city was a cultural and artistic mecca, blending a conglomerate of styles in a distinct dialect expressed in fine and decorative art. Already well known for producing high-quality Empire furniture, the transition to an accessible and utilitarian Biedermeier style was effortless for central European cabinetmakers and their clientele. German cities like Karlsuhe also produced high-quality examples for imperial clients.
Despite Biedermeier’s proliferation in the Austro Hungarian Empire, it cannot be classified as region-specific though individual styles varied by country. “The Biedermeier style, spreading from the Congress of Vienna into Scandinavia by World War I, was popular for its timeless aesthetic,” says Nicholas Dawes, vice president of Special Collections at Heritage Auctions. “Cabinetmakers from New York City to Australia facilitated a strong intercontinental appreciation of the style.”
The first, and true, Biedermeier period ended around 1848. About 80 years after Biedermeier furniture was first introduced to Europe, a new appreciation for the style was revived at an 1896 exhibition in Vienna, which celebrated the 80th anniversary of the Congress of Vienna. The publications of early Biedermeier scholars, and other exhibitions in Berlin, Dresden and Munich, helped to create a new demand as well as serve as an alternative to heavily decorated and fussy Victorian, Art Nouveau and Aesthetic Movement forms. Enthusiasm for Biedermeier design lasted until about 1910, and subsequent episodes of revival occurred as late as the 1980s.
Though crafted in an earlier era, Biedermeier remains a design that can easily integrate into modern spaces. “I struggle to classify some pieces as simply ‘Biedermeier.’ They are manifestations of timeless applied arts,” Leichter says.
The presentation of Ritter Antik’s collection will offer over 150 pieces of furniture encompassing Empire and Biedermeier, as well as other styles. The entirety of the collection will be sold at no reserve. “There is no immortality,” Napoleon said, “but the memory that is left in the minds of men.” Perhaps, in that instance, he overlooked exceptional furniture.
NATHAN SHULTS is a special collection associate and cataloger in Heritage Auctions’ Fine & Decorative Arts department.