Life in the 18th Century

Literature · Travels · Clothing and Fashion · Furniture in Middle-Class Housing · Art · Theatre · Amusement & Indulgences · Architecture · Philosophy · Political and Social Circumstances

Spotlights on the commonplace cultural life at C. P. E. Bach’s times


Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), painting by or in the style of Godfry Kneller (late 17th/early 18th century). (Source: London, National Maritime Museum Greenwich)The 18th century is marked by a “reading revolution”, accompanied by a dramatic increase in production by publishing houses. Moralist periodicals become hugely popular, as do rite-of-passage literature and light fiction. The aristocracy, clergy and academic bourgeoisie meet at reading societies, and libraries are built in nearly every town. The key novel of this era is Laurence Sterne's "A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy" (1768).




Johann Wolfgang von Goethe at Campagna, painting by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1787). (Source: Frankfurt/Main, Städelsches Kunstinstitut)Classic educational trips are no longer an upper-class privilege, and the traditional Grand Tour is systematically used for gathering information and establishing international contacts. Nevertheless, travelling by stage coach remains slow and cumbersome. Popular destinations include Paris, Rome and Venice.



Clothing and Fashion

Carl Bertuch (publisher), Journal des Luxus und der Moden (English: Journal of luxury and fashion). Edition Weimar 1795. (Source: Wikipedia)Changing fashions in clothing emerge in the second half of the 18th century, with periodicals presenting copperplate prints of the latest trends. Parisian vogue is soon challenged by the tasteful, yet functional new fashion from England, while Germans favour the so-called “Werther costume” of a blue dress coat over a yellow vest and yellow breeches.



Furniture in Middle-Class Housing

Davenport, veneered with nutwood,theresian era (1750). (Source: Wikipedia)18th century modern, middle class housing is characterized by more daylight, small, functionally differentiated rooms, and separate spheres for men and women. Chests are replaced by wardrobes, chairs and benches by upholstery. Living space is decorated with paintings, curtains and carpets; and mirrors are now encroached on middle class homes.




Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), self-portrait (1629).A simplified formula for 18th century art tastes might be: Dutch: wow! – Italian: faugh! French historical painting is superseded by Dutch and Flemish genre pieces, still lives and landscapes, accompanied by an enormous upswing on the art market in general. As of 1770, art auctions become the most significant transfer point for paintings.




August von Kotzebue (1761–1819), copper engraving by Friedrich Theodor Müller (1785). (Source: Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Inventar-Nr. A 11476)The introduction of permanent court theatres leads to an increase in professional acting ensembles. Musical theatre becomes especially popular. Mostly French, English and Italian pieces are performed, while today’s “classics” by Goethe, Schiller and Lessing remain somewhat unpopular during their time.




Amusement & Indulgences

Jean Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), The Tea Drinker (second half of the 18th century). (Source: Glasgow, Art Gallery and Museum)Prior to the 18th century, coffee, tea and chocolate are reserved for the aristocracy. But by 1739, London boasts 551 and Vienna 40 coffee houses. They are centres of culture and community, functioning as libraries, galleries and stages. As of 1729, the Collegia musica performs under the direction of Johann Sebastian Bach at the Zimmermann coffee house in Leipzig.




Country house Jean Cesar IV. Goddefroy (1789–92, so-called „Hirschparkhaus“) by Christian Fredrik Hansen in Hamburg-Nienstedten.Baroque architecture is characterized by pomp and splendour, symbolizing the power, dynamics and wealth of the ruling classes. The rococo style of the 18th century breaks up baroque symmetry with playful elegance and exuberant decorations, before mid-18th century classicism reintroduces straight lines and clear shapes in allusion to the rising middle classes.




Denis Diderot (1713–1784), painting by Louis–Michel van Loo (1767). (Source: Wikipedia)The 18th century is the age of enlightenment, which Immanuel Kant defines as follows: “Enlightenment is man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another.” Human action is to be determined by reason, rather than blindly following the dogmas set by crown and church.



Political and Social Circumstances

Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier, Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (c. 1789). (Source: Wikipedia? Paris, Musée Carnavalet)Europe enjoys an unprecedented era of peace and wealth between the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) and the French Revolutionary Wars. Famines are a thing of the past, while industry, trade and agriculture flourish. Abolishment of the death penalty is discussed, and reforms lead to “enlightened absolutism”, proclaiming the equality of humankind.