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Of all the great furniture styles, Empire has had the disadvantage of being at best only a successful artificial mode; it did not grow naturally out of the immediate past nor, as Charles Over Cornelius has remarked in his book, "Early American Furniture," was it one in which the forms of a former age were handled with imagination. The earlier examples are the least open to criticism from an artistic standpoint, for these still retain something of the restraint that all good designs should possess.
Today Empire furniture from French country districts, less formal than the purer style made in Paris, is finding its way to America. These tables, chairs, sofas and some times beds reflect the general lines of the great style, inclining more, however, to the simpler forms and more intimate sizes familiar to us in the Directoire types into which these provincial pieces often merge.
The ormolu ornamentation on these examples of French country furniture is less elaborate and as a result relieves the piece of the air of ostentatious display so much a part of the typical Empire style, Chairs, especially, made by countryside cabinetmakers in France in the days when Napoleon was marching his troops under the Arc de Triomphe, have a country simplicity that is still found charming in American homes, while incorporating enough of the traditional Empire style to recall in an interesting manner those great days of France.
In Italy in the first quarter of the nineteenth century similar modifications of the French influence were going on, and today one may buy, either in authentic originals or in accurate reproductions, chairs and tables and sideboards that reveal the classic motifs upon which Percier and Fontaine, Napoleon's two great designers, based their much more elaborate creations.
The period of the best American Empire furniture was, roughly, the first quarter of the century. The break with English styles occasioned in America by the Revolution was never completely repaired, so that with the War of 1812 and Lafayette's visit to this country in 1814 French fashions in household furnishings completely superseded English types among the social arbiters of fashion of those days.
The cabinetmaker who is most closely associated with this furniture of Napoleon is that early New Yorker, Duncan Phyfe. Compared with his best work done under the Sheraton influence, his excursions into a somewhat alien style are not always successful. This is indubitably true of pieces produced by him after 1820 or 1825. From that time on his chairs, tables and sofas in the Empire style partake of the general decadence of taste found in all the arts of the time.
The sofas of Duncan Phyfe were perhaps the best of the pieces in the Empire fashion that he made for wealthy New Yorkers and for patrons who lived in Philadelphia and Boston. In spite of the heaviness of detail of some of the examples from his workshop and the workshops of his contemporaries, one may sometimes discover a delightful use of the curved line. In the best work of this early Empire period the restraining note of Sheraton is seen.
Characteristic of this time were the chairs with straight front legs and with the back and rear legs formed in a subtle and continuous curve. Motifs such as the harp are found on chair backs and also in the pedestals of tables, which, combined with the bronze feet of table legs and drawer handles and with a restrained use of the ormolu ornament, are characteristic of the best of American Empire style.
Typical pieces of American Empire furniture were the beds-modeled on Napoleon's famous bed-which show a broad side with a graceful concave curve connecting the two curved-end pieces. Made in mahogany, as was most of the furniture of this time, and decorated with ormolu ornament in the form of a rosette or a garland, bedsteads of this type were in use during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Beds with headboards and footboards, the posts liberally carved, were also characteristic Empire forms. In the early part of the period some four-posters are found, the heavy ornate carving of the mahogany designating them at once as of this ornate period.
In the types of pure Empire being reproduced todaystill useful for the room of extreme formality and elegance -small circular metal tripod stands with marble tops, slen der legs and delicately chased bronze ornaments are designed with such art that the prejudice aroused by the too ornate examples of the style is overcome. The beautiful amboyna wood, a mottled wood in rich tones of brown, much used today in very fine furniture, is combined in an Empire table with the traditional marble top, supported by bronze caryatids and with delicately engraved ornaments of Cupids and wreaths on the sides of the table. Such furniture cannot be used indiscriminately. By careful placing, an occasional piece may contribute a particularly rich note to a dignified drawing room or entrance hall.
To use Empire furniture, whether a slender marbletopped tripod table or a Duncan Phyfe rendition of the Empire style or the French provincial or the Italian modification, one must exercise a degree of selectiveness made urgent by few other pieces of furniture. Furniture in the Empire style may, however, be successfully combined with furniture of other periods, where the tendency toward heaviness and ornateness in the Empire examples is offset by their air of sophisticated elegance or where, in the simplest forms, their severe lines and heaviness take on a quaint note of antiquarian interest among more successfully designed furniture.