Art styles

Fire service art followed certain fashion
trends and ignored others...

An early influence on American fire apparatus was the Empire Style. Ancient Rome and Pompeii were being excavated at the end of the 1700's and it was big news. The simple designs being uncovered appealed to American artists. They saw these early samples of Roman culture as purer than the exaggerated Rococo interpretations that were popular in Europe. Here are some early American designs inspired by newly discovered ancient Roman furniture.

      links to pages...

    The Americans took a stylish European Rococo form of furniture which used attached glided bronze ormaloo. The Americans replaced the bronze pieces with carved and gilded wood ornament, or with flat gold leaf scrolls that had painted-on shading. The point was that the scrolls were early Roman, not Rococo... because the furniture was built for free citizens of the new world, not old world aristocrats.
    This same ornamentation was used on early hand engines. These big gold scrolls continued to be used on steamers and also on motorized fire engines well into the 20th century.

    This is French Rococo ormaloo decoration from 1750- 1770. It is the inspiration for much of the gilded scroll work seen on American fire engines... But not these C shaped Rococo scrolls and shell forms. These shapes appear to be units sitting next to each other, barely connected. The new world artisans wanted the serpentine scroll work patterns of the Romans. Their scrolls were intertwining, branching out and growing. Acanthus and ivy leaves were often used on hand tubs and steamers.

    Another influence on American fire engine scrolls was the English painter William Hogarth. In 1753 he published Analysis of Beauty. In this book he coined the term "line of beauty" for the serpentine, meandering S curves he found in the designs of Raphael.
    This aesthetic concept was taught at trade schools in England and discussed in painter's manuals and trade journals in America. A fancy painter with any curiosity would have heard of this Line of Beauty.

Hogarth used of the Line of Beauty in his painting Beer Street, 1759.

    "Would you like that plain or fancy?" This was a question often asked by artisans of all kinds. "Fancy" was a style in early America. Artisans were considered to be in touch with a vital creative energy, and Americans wanted this in their homes. Busy stylized wall murals and floor cloths were popular, along with tole painted tin ware, patterned quilts, wood grained doors and chests. Living with lively patterns was thought to increase one's personal vigor.
    Colonial fire engines were painted plain colors to water-proof them. American engine builders added painted stripes and sometimes flowers. Soon the engines had gold stripes and carvings. Surfaces were covered with painted ornaments, filigree lines and heavy gold scrolls.

    Hand tubs often had portraits or allegorical figures painted on them. In the second half of the 19th century young American painters traveled to Europe to study. The Academy of Art in Düsseldorf attracted a larger colony of American artists than Paris. The style learned at this school was brought back to America.

    One American at Düsseldorf was Emanuel Leutze. He painted Washington Crossing the Delaware in 1851. The painting demonstrates the Düsseldorf style with romantic staging, interesting detail and dramatic lighting.
    The Hudson River school of landscape painting started with several Düsseldorf alumni. Landscapes became more popular in general in the second half of the century. They began to appear on fire engines at this time. Popular works of art were copied by fancy painters onto hand tubs and steamers. The style of these trained artists was copied by fancy painters in cities and towns across the American continent.

All photos, artwork and information are copyrighted by Peter Achorn and Fire Gold.  © 1999-2015 all rights reserved.
Any perceived copyright infringements are unintentional and will be removed upon request.