An introduction to decorative arts at the J. Paul Getty Museum

I suddenly became aware that furniture could have great artistic and aesthetic merit… one would have to be a totally insensitive clod not to respond to the environment and to be impressed and influenced by it. It wasn’t that a spark was struck. It was rather a blazing torch was applied, and my collector’s urge flared high.
                         — J. Paul Getty, writing in his diary in 1935
Mr. Getty began acquiring European furniture in the 1930s and soon became an avid collector of European Decorative Arts. Today the J. Paul Getty Museum has an extensive collection primarily from the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of the finest examples in the collection include a series of tapestries, lighting implements, silver pieces, and two magnificent beds.


Tapestries are hand-woven from wool and silk threads, and were meant to be hung on walls or draped over furniture. They served several purposes, not only decorative, but they were also used to tell stories, exhibit one's wealth, and provide insulation for the drafty rooms common in this time period.
The three tapestries seen below are part of a series entitled The Story of the Emperor of China. They were the first tapestries to be created around a chinoiserie theme, in which Westerners employed exotic Chinese forms combined with European motifs. The tapestries feature Emperor Shunzhi (1638–61) and his wife. They are both featured in the image below left, admiring a large pile of game. In the center tapestry, the mustached emperor confers with local and international scientists around a large globe and armillary sphere. The panel at the right displays a woman, possibly the empress, gesturing with her fan at a lush landscape of pineapple plants.
Throughout all three tapestries, the artists have imagined China to be an abundant, tropical land filled with fabulous architecture and rare fruit, seen in the terraced pavilions and field of pineapples. In actuality, the artists had never traveled to China themselves, but instead drew inspiration from botanical engravings as well as the published accounts of Jesuit missionaries and the Dutch East India Company.

Lighting elements

It is fascinating to imagine life in the 17th and 18th centuries without the luxuries of modern times. One of the starkest differences must have been in the illumination of the rooms. Along with firelight, candles were the only sources of illumination after dark; thus, candelabra, wall-mounted lights, as seen below, and chandeliers abounded. These objects were often gilded, not only to heighten their splendor, but also to reflect the candlelight and illuminate the room.
To further brighten the room, mounted gilt-bronze wall lights could be placed on either side of a mirror, so that the flames of the candles were reflected in the mirror glass, as they are displayed in the Rococo gallery at the Getty Center, seen below.
One spectacular example of a lighting element was inspired by the recent invention of the hot air balloon. Artist Gérard-Jean Galle created his own balloon with a blue lacquered globe strewn with gold stars above a glass bowl, seen in the image below.
The twelve signs of the zodiac wrap around the globe on a gilt-bronze band, seen above in the detail of the bull (Taurus) at the left. Galle also fitted the bowl with a plug, seen at the right, and explained that it could hold water and small goldfish, "whose continuous movement amuses the eye most agreeably." When he exhibited the chandelier in 1819, he described it as a lustre à poisson (fish chandelier).


Silver trays, vessels, and even fountains (vessels for dispensing water), shown below, adorned the dining tables of wealthy European families in the 17th–18th centuries.
These decorative pieces were not only sumptuous but also functional. They often gave a hint to the cuisine held within, as seen in the tureens below, which are topped with sculpted crayfish and vegetables.
One unusual work in the Getty’s collection did not hold food or drink, but served only a decorative purpose. Called the Machine d'Argent(literally, "silver machine"), this sculpture represents two birds, a rabbit, and a variety of vegetables, as shown below. It was commissioned by the Duke of Mecklenburg to complement his series of animal and hunt paintings. The sculpted game birds, ortolan and snipe, and rabbit represent trophies of the hunt. Combined with the root vegetables and mushrooms, the animals also alluded to the ingredients of a rich stew.
Using a secret casting technique, Machine d'Argent took seven months to create. Germain cast some of the still life elements from molds of dead animals or vegetables. These individual elements were then assembled together on the base. The rich variety of detail showcased Germain's ability to transform silver into the diverse textures of nature—from soft fur to downy feathers to the multi-beaded head of cauliflower and the smooth, waxy skin of the onion bulb.


Two of the largest and perhaps most arresting objects in the Getty Museum’s Decorative Arts collection are 18th-century beds, and each serves as example of the time period in which they were made.
The bed shown below is called alit à la Turque (Turkish bed). This title does not refer to any specific Turkish design source but reflects the 18th-century preoccupation with anything exotic and unusual from foreign countries. This unusually large bed was made for a bedroom in a grand private residence. It would have been placed sideways against a wall, with a draped baldachin (ornamental canopy) now missing. The wheels underneath the bed allowed servants to pull out the body of the bed easily, leaving the tall back attached to the wall while they made the bed. It was probably set into an alcove or niche in a bedroom wall.
The lit à la Polonaise (Polish bed) would have also belonged in a deep niche in the bedroom of the main apartment of a palace or mansion. In the 1700s, visitors were frequently received in the bedroom, while the host or hostess was still in bed or at his or her dressing table.
Seen in the details below, the lit à la Turque best represents the Rococo period. This style can be recognized by its curving lines, gilded embellishments, and influence from nature. The framework for the lit à la Polonaise is also hand-carved and gilded, but the lines and forms are entirely different. Tastes had changed in the twenty-five years between the creation of the beds, and artists had moved from the Rococo to what was later called the Neoclassical style. The curvaceous Rococo leaves, tendrils, and shell shapes seen in the earlier bed, below left, gave way to straight lines and influences from the classical past, such as the "egg-and-dart" decoration and laurel leaves on the baldachin, below right.