A look at theatre > Décor and theatre in the 18th and 19th century

Johannes Jelgerhuis, Drie voorbeelden van contrastleer bij het acteren (Three examples of contrast theory in acting), with the actor Andries Snoek as Achilles, Louis XVI and Antinoos, preliminary studies for the illustration of lesson XV in Theoretische lessen over de gesticulatie en mimiek, pen en inkt (Theory lessons on gesticulation and mimicry, pen and ink), Amsterdam ca. 1830

Eighteenth century prints show what stage décors looked like at the time. In that century, stage designers used standard décors for the wings, for example ‘the summer forest’, ‘the castle hall’, ‘the middle-class living room’ or ‘the commons’. Every theater had that kind of décor until deep into the 19th century. They consisted of six or more pairs of either symmetric or asymmetric wings, set up to the right and left of the stage and slanting off toward the backdrop. On top, the décors were closed off by pieces of cloth hanging one after the other (friezes). Painted in false perspective, the décors looked deeper than they actually were. Actors and singers had to take a circuitous route to get downstage, where everyone had his or her own place. There was a prescribed posture and gesture for every emotion they acted out, as illustrated in pictures of décors, portraits and drawings of gestures.

With the arrival of Romanticism in the 19th century, standard décors and prescribed technique went out of fashion. New décors were made for important new plays. They included a large backdrop, fancifully painted, and no more than two wings. The costume designs from that period clearly demonstrate the growing appreciation for dressing the actors in costumes befitting the historical context.

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