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Exquisite European art and objects reveal how the Church, trade, and innovation influenced what was once considered the height of affluence.
For centuries in Europe, luxury goods were the preserve of the monarchy, church, and nobility. But waves of change gave more people than ever access to the beauty and sophistication of gold, fine furniture, silks, and lace.
Discover these objects of desire spanning 300 years of history.
Whether hunting game or dancing the latest minuet, wealthy Europeans in the 1600s and 1700s wore the finest fabrics and latest fashions. Refinement extended to accessories, from firearms to fans.
This finery was used to assert status – only the wealthy could afford such opulence. Some goods, such as lace, were regulated by royal decree, and only nobles could – in theory – wear them.
But this exclusivity couldn’t last. New trade and manufacturing soon put these long-coveted luxuries within reach of the emerging middle classes.
Wenceslaus Hollar, A chalice, 1640, etching. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1961. Te Papa (1961-0006-12)
Hans Sebald Beham, A mask held by two genii, 1544, engraving. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1959. Te Papa (1959-0023-3)
Francesco Xanto Avelli, Serving dish, 1530-1535, tin- glaze earthenware. Purchased 1983 with Charles Disney Art Trust funds. Te Papa (CG001495/a)
Unknown artist, Still life, mid-to-late 17th century, oil on canvas. Gift of Dr G.F.V. Anson, T.V. Anson, H.V. Anson and Mrs F.S. Maclean, 1943. Te Papa (1943-0007-1)
Unknown, Vase, Bristol, England, mid 18th century, tin-glaze earthenware. Purchased 1975, with Charles Disney Art Trust funds (CG001231)
John Copley, Mrs Humphrey Devereux, 1771, oil on canvas. Gift of the Greenwood family, 1965. Te Papa (1965-0013-1)
George Dawe, Achilles frantic for the loss of Patroclus, rejecting the consolation of Thetis, 1803, oil on canvas. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1936. Te Papa (1936-0012-83)
Religious art abounded in 1500. Sumptuously decorated Roman Catholic churches inspired awe and reverence for God.
But in the early 1500s, Protestant reformers challenged Catholic domination. They emphasised restraint over opulence, and a more personal relationship with God. Catholic churches remained lavish, but people began to make devotional art, such as biblical embroideries, for their homes.
George Dawe, Portrait of Princess Charlotte of Wales, about 1817, oil on panel. Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1936. Te Papa (1936-0012-92)
Portraits sent compelling messages about social rank, power, and wealth. Monarchs, nobles, politicians, and clergy were depicted in luxurious clothing, adorned with jewels and symbolic accessories.
An oil painting could declare a person’s splendour to a select audience, but from the early 1500s, print reproductions spread these influential images far more widely.
By the mid 1600s, the middle classes – and artists themselves – were becoming increasingly prosperous. In portraits, they flaunted their new wealth by wearing fine lace and furs.
Download a fun and informative children's guide to European Splendour 1500–1800. Produced by Issac and Paddy, pupils of Pukerua Bay School Museum.
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