The Empire Style
The new passion for antiquity reached its highest pitch in France where it became indissolubly connected first with the French Revolution and secondly with the Emperor Napoleon I.
It is therefore the first example of an ideological style: this is to say a style adopted not so much for its own beauty or convenience but rather for the sake of the political qualities of the civilisation that first evolved it. No style had ever proved so all-embracing. Architecture, furniture, painting, women’s dress, military uniforms all approximated as closely as possible to what were hoped to be the antique models.
However, very little Greek furniture had survived the centuries, so designers were forced to use their own imaginations. Like Louis XIV, Napoleon wanted to use furniture as a symbol of political greatness.
In France trade and industry were booming, and much more middle-class housing was being built. Smaller rooms were fashionable, and so furniture and decorative objects had be be scaled down accordingly. After Napoleon’s Nile Campaign, his prestige was high. An admirer of the court of Imperial Rome, Napoleon went to great lenghts to encourage the arts, setting an example in patronage which was followed by the new rich.
The architects Percier and Fontaine were the greatest exponents of classicism and the Empire style’s most important designers. During the Directoire they had worked on the restoration of the Royal Palaces, and they subsequently redesigned the Empress Josephine’s Château de Malmaison. The Malmaison interiors varied hugely, from the elegant and restrained music room to the exotic bedroom of the Empress with its gilded bed, tending and painted ceiling. They believed furniture to be an important part of any interior and often worked with Georges Jacob and later his son Jacob-Desmalter.
Napoleon liked to surround himself with all things military, and this resulted in “le style héroique”, featuring spear heads, campaign tents and the like.
Empire Style in brief:
- Simple painted rooms
- Polished plaster;
- Tented rooms hung with silk and muslins;
- Classical wallpaper borders;
- Plain ceilings.
Empire Furniture and Fabrics
Empire artisans borrowed designs from Egyptian, Greek, and Roman furniture. They made chairs with curved rear legs shaped like those on the Greek klismos. They decorated furniture with such classical subjects as lions, sphinxes, and sculptured female figures called caryatids. Empire commodes, writing tables, and desks called secretaires were designed to fit into the overall plan of a room. Sofas and chairs had square backs and were usually covered en suite.
Empire furniture tended to be quite plain and heavy. Mahogany, rosewood and satinwood were popular initially, but in France they became scarce because of the European blockade, so native woods (maple, beech, walnut, oak, fruitwoods) were increasingly used.
Motifs on fabrics were popular, and featured Napoleonic bees, swans, laurel wreaths, crowns, lyres, vases, the initials of the Emperor, eagles, oak leaves and the like. The production of Lyons silk was flagging at the start of the Empire period, but Napoleon’s support, combined with major mechanical advances, breathed new life into the industry. Fabrics in the Chinese taste were very much in vogue again.
Empire Furniture and Fabrics in brief:
- Heavy furniture;
- Mahogany, burr walnut, cherry, pear;
- Classical details, wreaths and winged sphinxes;
- Muslin, coloured silks, serge, merino wool, damasks with laurel leaves, wreaths and swan motifs.
- Strong colours, reflecting the optimism felt in the country;
- Empire green, Empire ruby, azure blue, clear lemon yellow, amethyst and pearl grey were mixed with gold and white. The quieter colours were the result of Josephine’s influence.
- Long casements;
- Curtains with muslin with heavy silk or damask fixed drapery.
- Parquet marble covered with large carpets;
- Aubusson velvet pile square carpets, with large patterns of wreaths.
Candles, chandeliers, wall sconces, candelabras, Argand oil lamps.
Empire Buildings and Museums
Malmaison Paris, Fountainbleu, German Embassy - Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Hotel Bourienne Paris (Directoire interior), The Château de Bagatelle Abbeville Picardy.
© Adrienne Chinn - London