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Decorative Periods:
Decorative Stles And Periods In The Home
General Antiquity
Pompeian Decorative Styles And Periods
Gothic Decorative Styles And Periods
The Renaissance
Decorative Styles And Periods In Italy
Decorative Styles And Periods In France
The Style Of Louis Quatorze
The Style Of Louis Quinze
The Style Of Lous Seize
Empire Decorative Styles And Periods
Elizabethan Or Tudor Styles Sixteenth Century
Jacobean Period
Queen Anne
Chippendale Middle Of Eighteenth Century
The Adams Brother
Hepplewhite Book Issued 1789
Shearton - End Of The Eighteenth Century
English And American Empire
Art Nouveau

Empire Decorative Styles And Periods - 1799-1814

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



To read our pieces of Empire furniture aright, we must keep in mind the time and the events of which it was the decorative expression. It is a story full of absorbing interestas the entire history of furniture always must befrom beginning to end, a story of man in his familiar life, man in his human intimacies.

In the three great periods of French decorative art, under the Great Louis, Louis the Well-Loved, and Louis XVI, we see a shorter Renaissance, one inspired by France, and extending thence to all Europe. As Italy had once been taken as the inspiration, so in these reigns did contemporary art turn to France for its models. Through its political conditions the country was ruled in every department by the reigning monarch and those he gathered about him. Court life involved poets and sages, diplomats and priests, and most powerful of all, the women who could not rule in name.

The furniture of those days speaks of all that brilliant horde, but it remained for Napoleon to so concentrate interest in himself alone that the decorative art of his time seemed to express him alone. His powerful personality pervades all, and every piece of ormolu-mounted mahogany, every length of wreath-besprinkled, crude-coloured brocade, declares its imperial inspiration. The Empire period means Napoleon.

The change from one of the three preceding styles to another was, as we have seen, a gradual matter, one of gentle amity and the subtle flattering of the new monarch. " Your grandfather had that, you want something new," was the suggestion which has influenced others than kings to toss aside what was good in favour of what was novel.

But the change which came at the end of the old regime came through the hideous demolition by the Revolution, which sought to wash away the past with rivers of blood. The horrors are too well known to review, nor are they pertinent, except as showing cause for the disappearance of the treasures of art, the furniture de luxe that it had been the pleasure of kings to acquire and to place in the once safe harbour of palaces.

Louis XVI and his beautiful frivolous queen had been guillotined but a short time, when the mob took possession of all the monarch had owned as belonging to the new self-made government which was of the people. It was little wonder that a people so long oppressed, so long accustomed to feel that only privation and labour were for them, lost reason and judgment with the bursting of palace gates. The treasures inside were to them eloquent of the indulgence of kings, -of kings grown so effete that even poor Marie Antoinette acknowledged it sadly in her comment on the miniature doll-house beauties of the Petit Trianon, calling the place appropriate " for such kings as we."

When the mob of the bourgeoisie looked about them at Versailles and other palaces, it is not surprising that bitterness overcame all feelings of admiration, and that virtuous retribution demanded the sacking and destroying of what had cost the people so much to supply. What were kings but men in that iconoclastic time, when respect for royalty had changed to such hatred that only the guillotine would serve it.

During the Directory came the demolition of the treasures of art. A body of men was appointed, called a jury of Arts and Manufactures. Even in those wild times the Latin love for beauty asserted itself so far as to consent to government patronage of the arts, or at least an acknowledgment that art was important enough to foster. But what fostering! Taste was guided by politics, and these were revolutionary.

The jury had for its object the inauguration of a new and glorious period in French decorative art,

one that had nothing to do with kings, forsooth. Its first duty was to decide what of existing works were worthy of preservation. In this selection the element of taste was omitted, - a strange omission for matters of art, which has as first aim the desire to please. All that was characteristic of court life was to disappear.

The jury held sittings at which everything was judged, and thus decisions made as to what should be retained and what thrown to destruction. Without honour must this bourgeoise committee have been in making up its rules. Nothing was to be retained that was associated with royalty. Condemnation fell upon armorial bearings, royal and semi-royal, and these being a frequent device on tapestries and on metal work in silver and ormolu, elegant articles of this class were apportioned for destruction.

Cartoons of Raphael were thrown out as superstitious in subject by this wild jury, who also rejected all pictures and ornaments containing signs of feudalism, - that being a time of oppression of the people. In assorting tapestries, the combat of the Romans and Sabines was counted as worthy of preservation as an interesting subject, but one depicting the arrival of Queen Cleopatra in Silicia is censured as anti-republican. The tapestry which represented the visit of Louis XIV to the royal manufacture of the gobelins was promptly condemned, but the jury lamented over the damaged condition of a series by Coypel on the adventures of Don Quixote, because they are constrained to turn chivalry into ridicule. Finally, sketches for furniture, borders, etc., yet to be executed, were examined, and were all condemned as being in hopelessly bad taste.

And what became of the condemned? Alas, it was a day of beheading for man and of burning for his effects; "the ambition of the virtuous Republican recoiled from the gates of Heaven and was resolute to create a new artistic earth." In the court of the Gobelins factory a tree of liberty was erected, and in its shadow was made a bonfire such as has never been seen before. Its flames were fed on the condemned tapestries and furniture and cartoons which the jury had not thought worthy of preservation.

And what then? Plans for the decoration of a public building in Paris recommends a work which shows the type accepted and approved by the new order. It is described as an allegory of " Minerva sitting at the feet of the Law, handing to Hercules, who personifies Popular Force, the decree which abolishes the Vices of the Old Government, represented by Harpies. At sight of the Law the Vices take flight, and are replaced by the Virtues. Fame proclaims the Regeneration of France by publishing the Rights of Man and the Democratic Constitution. Everywhere the figure of Minerva indicates the National Convention."

And so the new period began with the annihilation of the old, its tradition, design, and history. Politics governed taste and took the place of court patronage. But the leaders of social life had not taste to exercise control over those they employed.

Matters were at this point when Napoleon came up from the Italian wars and the Egyptian campaign, overthrew the Directory, and became First Consul. Artists and ebenistes had not died with the destruction of works of art. They still lived, and craved both fame and fortune. The times inspired them, and they had before them one of the greatest of opportunities, - empty palaces, and a man to please whose history was as picturesque as it was important.

Napoleon was made emperor, and as such appropriately took possession of the royal palaces, which had so recently been robbed of their fittings. To fill these with luxurious articles of use and beauty was the great opportunity. The precepts laid down by the committee on art which had made the bonfire at the Gobelins, and had written its imprisoning rules, had not now to be so closely followed. Instead, the theme was the great man of the hour and his picturesque exploits. There was not an event that was not reflected in some way on the decorations.

Indeed, a study of the furniture of the time reveals pictorially each campaign of the Little Corporal, the First Consul and the Emperor until the time of the paling of his star. It was but a few years - only thirteen - from obscurity to Elba, so the artists who served his will and his vanity worked fast at the creating of this new style in which Napoleon's mind dominated. That he deliberately composed the style is not to be considered, but it is undoubtedly the artists' interpretation of his desires.

And so it stands before us, marked with the characteristics of the man. It is not magnificent with the grandeur of the style of Louis XIV, but it is rich and dignified, finding strength in reserve rather than expression, and is never over-large. In these ways it resembles the emperor for whom it was composed. Luxury tending to effeteness is not shown, nor subtlety of line, but on simple construction is laid the embellishments which speak of martial conquest and civic success. Is this not characteristic of the man himself?

To examine critically the furniture of the time is to discover first of all its simplicity of construction, yet in what marked manner this departs from the style of Louis XVI. The construction of certain chairs is straight and severe, yet lacks almost all suggestion of its preceding style for one or two most noticeable reasons. Whereas in Louis' reign the chairs were carved, now the wood is for the most part plain, mounted in ormolu; then it was gilded, now it is finished in its natural colour; then the back legs were straight in line with the back, now they curve slightly outward.

There is never any possibility of confusing the two styles, for one speaks of rose gardens, boudoirs, and playful intimacies, the other speaks of Rome and the imperial Caesars. The spirit pervading each is wide apart.

Chairs of simple construction are small, and rely for beauty on the colour of the mahogany, the fineness of the mounts, and the elegance of the stuffs used for covering them. Larger chairs, though far from being over-large, show more variety through carving. But as though to keep clear of reminiscence of a style recently destroyed, the carving is structural and massive. A sweeping horn of plenty curves down into the arm, or the heads of rams or lions terminate them. Still more elaborate are the winged gryphons, whose decorative persons occupy all the space of a chair-arm and equally impressive are strange creatures with human heads and chest, shaft-like bodies, and one huge lion's foot resting on the floor to take the weight. Across the back is sometimes carved the suggestion of a pediment.

Tables were for the most part round, and consoles or pier tables rectangular. The tops were of marble, sometimes white, sometimes of an ugly slate colour, which might be called light black. The supports of the pier tables showed little imagination and were the same as those used on such case-work as cabinets, bookcases, dressing-tables. Indeed, the cabinetmakers at this period consulted neither art nor service in this construction, which not only looks frail but is so in reality. The legs which hold the back are more than slighted, being but slats, and not too well joined. Those which present themselves for notice on the front, however, are dignified and elegant, cut into tapering shape, crowned with a female bust, finished with feet all of ormolu.

Round tables on the other hand have invariably supports of great interest, and incline toward three feet. A central pillar carved stands on three lions' paws, or from, a three-cornered plinth rises three columns to support the table-top, with three carved feet on the floor. Tables both square and round, those of a high order of workmanship, are supported by carved gryphons resting on a shaped base, giving great elegance and dignity to the piece. Against this sort of work nothing can be said, for it is at all times and during all fashions pleasing to the cultivated taste.

In using mahogany with its bright rich surface, the French of that time were tempted to resume in part at least their old-time tradition of incrusting furniture rather than leaving the constructive wood in sight. Thus we find veneer in full force in the empire furniture, used where there was not the slightest reason for it, not to economise, but living to a false tradition that thus could better effects be gained. In the writer's possession are a dressingtable and bureau of mahogany veneered on oak. At least this assists the longevity of the pieces, and gives a pleasing effect on opening the finely finished drawers.

Even chairs are veneered, and this must have been at great pains where pains were not necessary, for mahogany was plenty at that time, - the heavy Spanish or San Domingo mahogany. But of necessity all carvings were cut from the solid block.

It would scarcely be going too far to say that the Empire style depends for its beauty and its character on the bronze gilt mounts with which it is enriched. These are what mark the period above all other peculiarities, just as rococo curves mark the style of Louis Quinze. Furniture at that time was hardly to be found without them, but as a warning to the unwary it must be remembered that unscrupulous dealers now dress plain pieces with copied mounts to reap large profits from otherwise unsalable wares.

These mounts, perfect in chiselling, infinite in design, enriching in function, tell all the story of the man who made such astonishing history in the world and in the boudoir. They cry aloud the name of Napoleon and invest with his spirit every piece of the grandiose furniture of his time. Decorative art that had been reflecting the glory or effeminacy of the three last kings, now reflected the glory of the First Consul and the Emperor.

His campaign into Egypt is not hard to find ormolu, where it shows in sphinxes, in hieroglyplis and stiff statues. Indeed, the very shapes of cha: irs are so exactly copied from the Egyptain that one found in recent excavations in the Nile country was at once dubbed " Empire." Strange anachronism ! The Italian campaign furnished the cent : al thought for most of the decorations, for here was Rome, and Rome had harboured Caesar, the hero Napoleon sought to emulate in uniting all civilisation under one head, one man, and that man himself. Rome of the Caesars was taken as the decorative model, and classic became the ormolu mounts that decorated the new emperor's furniture. The anthemium is seen everywhere and plays its part as variously as once did the acanthus, making a pretty terminal for almost any design. Favourite among all designs were the wreaths of bay, the wreath of the hero, crossed with the torch meant for the brand of victorious war, but alas, applicable as well to the flames of Moscow. Napoleon, superstitious in all things, may have thought of this in exile on that island where Thaclceray looked for him from the ship with childish terror as the man who daily devoured three sheep and all the little boys he could get hold of.

Mounts for large surfaces showed an abundance of floating female figures of a truly virtuous type, - something between a Roman matron and an angel, and not likely in any way to suggest the playful creations of past reigns. Independent mounts for crowning a pediment or a column, or even a cradle such as that which magnificently sheltered the pitiable boy we know romantically as 1'Aiglon, represented a winged victory poised on a sphere. Amorini thus mounted figure in the same way with Pompeian suggestion.

The eagle, taken appropriately by Napoleon as one of his most inspiring of emblems, plays many a decorative part, finely chased in gilt-bronze. This noble bird keeps guard atop a fine cabinet which was one of Napoleon's wedding gifts to Marie Louise.

The letter N is used with as much importance as though the emperor had had exclusive use of it, used with the pride of the commoner exalted, who thus declares his scorn of royal armorial bearings. There is something appealing to the democrat in this frank declaration of obscurity brought to prominence through effort and worth. The letter stands alone surrounded with the victor's wreath, both formal, severe, eloquent.

Why Napoleon should take the bee as one of his symbols has many explanations. Perhaps the most reasonable has no foundation but romance, that he adopted it from a great family of Rome when Italy fell before him, just as the Turks took their crescent from conquered Byzantium. No one can wander long in Rome without encountering the truly majestic Barberini bee, and it is this over-sized insect with spread wings that is now called the Napoleon bee.

A favourite design is the Roman fasces, the bound sticks with an axe in the centre, for all is martial at this time; and the Phrygian liberty cap still suggests freedom to the people who had not yet waked to the idea that they were being worse bled by wars than before the Revolution.

Metal was used as flat inlay in simple strips, but is not often seen. Perhaps the most beautiful creations of this time that are left us are the candelabra after Pompeian models. These are small for mantels or tables, but stand from the floor to an exaggerated height, resting on a tripod, and are as exquisitely perfect as art and patience and skill could make them.

The beds of the period are interesting in their variety, and approach more nearly the modern type, in that the poles disappear, and with them the canopy. To compensate, a generous amount of wood is shown, and this, of course, is richly mounted. The shape of beds is compact, solid, box-like, with no difference in the height of head and foot, and often made with a bolster roll at each end.

Stuffs at this time took on strong crude colours, and stiff drawing: All the subtleties of fine flowers, love-knots, little baskets, with their infinite variety of colouring, were cast out, and by way of contrast there were plain surfaces sparsely sprinkled with formal designs of classic line. The colours ran largely to a strong rich green, neither too yellow nor too blue, but just the right tone to harmonise with the almost barbaric magnificence of the bronzegilt mounts and glossy wood. Red, in the deep bright tone found in the heart of rare rubies, was a favourite, and blue of the tone known even now as Marie Louise.

The name of the artist which comes first to mind in thinking on those who helped to direct art in this time of quick change is David, whom we identify by his familiar picture of Madame Recamier reclining on an affectedly delicate and uncomfortable sofa. It is interesting to know that his education was pursued in Italy - thus being fitted to design after the antique. It is also noteworthy that he served under Louis XVI, but turned against him in the Revolution, and was ready to worship whatever strange gods the times might produce.

The names of Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine are those, however, which are most closely associated with the applied arts. They were men of sufficient talent to direct the decorations of the Opera House in Paris, and to erect the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. Percier also built the Madeline and the Bourse, and finished the Louvre.

But it is as designers of furniture and decorations that they are most useful to us. Percier, through friendship with Canova, had close Italian affiliations, and Fontaine took the Prix de Rome, which gave him a course of study in that city. Thus were both equipped to copy and invent after the classic style. In 1812 they together published a book of designs under the name, " Recueil des Decorations Interieur." These designs were all of them executed for persons of distinction, many of them - the imperial throne - being for Napoleon himself. It can only be said of these artists that their elegance is such that were one prejudiced against the Empire style as being gaudy and inartistic, he must re-form his judgment or limit it to some of the poor pieces exploited by dealers. As Percier and Fontaine presented the style, and as their pieces still preserved attest, it represents a union of Greek beauty and modern comfort.

At least the style refutes the accusation that this period represents, not art, but only glory.



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