Textiles - The Directory and the Empire
( Originally Published 1930 )
IT is bound to come again, a deserved appreciation of the classic styles of the Directory and the Empire. It is amazing that so much beauty could fall into desuetude, could be absolutely neglected by decorator and client.
In its highest expression it showed a refinement that was Greek. But as it depended on an intellectual understanding of such refinement it easily fell into abominable travesty when used by those of little talent, and in its decadence it is truly execrable.
To awaken interest and to inspire admiration consider the artists who executed the style. They were the same talented men who invented the daintiest fancies for the furnishings called after Louis XVI. They merely executed old tricks with new symbols, to suit new political conditions. It was the business of the army of men who had worked in the furniture and textile factory established by Louis XIV in his forceful youth, to please the monarch and his favorites, up to the time when the Revolution obliterated all as being unworthy of the idealists who saw in beauty only corruption. The women of the people who sat knitting by the guillotine, what to them were the bronzes, marquetry, brocades, tapestries conceived by artists in the apartments of the Louvre and executed by the Gobelins factory? They saw in these things but the toys of au aristocracy which drove gorgeous coaches over their children in the narrow village streets. As they hated these haughty tyrants, so they hated all evidences of their luxury and taste.
Factories stopped, bonfires burned up :collected bibelots, and artists hid themselves, all atremble lest they be guillotined because a talent existed within their consciousness which could not be plucked out. Those were terrible times for artists, for the artist, after all, was the affair of royalty and aristocracy.
When red rags were waved and death awaited all who could be found guilty of favoring the finer interests of life, what could a designer of panniers—fleuris and ribbon-knots do but burn his brushes and dirty his hands in their cinders to prove himself a glorious common laborer emancipated from the fripperies of aristocratic taste.
The idol Napoleon rose from the ashes of the burned-out passion of France. Not even the reddest hater of the well-born could find any trace of aristocracy in the family of Bonaparte, which produced many sons on the island of Ajaccio. Having no ideals of art, it was inevitable that under the early days of Napoleon's power the arts remained feeble. Ajaccio has never been regarded an art center, so we imagine the Bonaparte family as conducting life in a stucco house very practically with their esthetic needs furnished by the local producers.
This, instead of making the victorious Napoleon regard beauty in home and palace as unnecessary, made him keen as the veriest snob to embellish the interiors where he lived and ruled. That is one of the most delightful weaknesses of Napoleon, that he showed himself as human as any lesser man when it came to giving himself airs. All the softer things and esthetic that had not embellished the days of his youth he was eager to own and exhibit as his accustomed habit. The irreverence of the present day might lead one to whisper a word about the traditional airs of the beggar a-horseback. However, once interested in art, the new master of France rapidly developed a taste which could only be gratified by such acts as dethroning the four bronze horses from the Piazza San Marco at Venice and trotting them off to Paris.
And thus came a better day for the artists in decoration. They crept from corners of concealment, sniffed the inspiring air of a revival and soon were put to work at their old ateliers.
But with a canny sense of fitness and flattery they threw away old models and invented new. The spirit of the times had changed and must be reflected. Two reasons. It seemed an unnecessary excitement to the sensitive nerves of the makers of the Revolution to commence duplication of the luxuries of the hated aristocrat. Also, it seemed a wise move to flatter the present Leader of France by forming a style which would be a constant reminder to a victorious people that because of a great commander France was gradually becoming the greatest world-power.
Every military exploit of Napoleon was taken as a decorative inspiration. If there were no imperious courtesans to inspire as in kings' times, there were de-signs in plenty to take from conquered countries, and these served the artists for some of the most delightful small motives ever inspired. On fabrics for decoration there was, for instance, the bee loved by the Emperor. It might be thought a bit of childishness for him to choose the humming insect of a garden, a turning back of his thoughts to childhood in Ajaccio—for what child does not love to watch a bee suck honey and menace a sting the while? But to Napoleon the bee meant the forcing of Rome to her knees before him. The powerful Roman family of the Barberini, aristocrats, patrons of art—it was from them he snatched their inherited emblem, making it his own with the victor's arrogance.
The artists took it with avidity, had it embroidered in gold all over costly velvets and brocades with an N of great conspicuousness in close association. Thus was advertised the capitulation of a family so great that Rome itself was included in the fall.
The campaign extended to Egypt. There was rare material for the designer, something exotic, piquant. The exquisite trifles of the last two styles of France had reached their highest expression in the work of Lancret, Huet and their followers. Egypt was a whole book of exotic motifs as yet untouched. ' Artists who please king or emperor must have ever a trick of flattery. It was probable that Napoleon would think it pleasant to wake in the morn to the sight of a pair of bronze sphinxes on his bed-head or one of lotus columns supporting his mirror. But the Egyptian inspiration never got very far, it was confined to small decorative motifs. Great use was made of these in gilt-bronze ornaments on furniture, taking .the place of the carving so freely used in previous styles.
But it was exactly these little gold-bronze ornaments which suggested the small figures brocaded in silks for hangings and coverings. With a history of Napoleon in hand one can almost date the furniture and hangings of the short fifteen years of his dominance by the display of symbols pertinent to his exploits.
Just why conquerors take to themselves the emblems of the conquered is a matter of psychology. It would seem that Napoleon should have forced the lily of France upon Italy, Spain, Egypt, Austria, rather than to adopt for his own the emblems of those countries.
But that, as said before, is one of the ways of all conquerors through history.
But in spite of new blood in the way of fresh con-quests, the great dominant throughout the Napoleonic period was Greek. Not so much in the history of wars is the reason found for this as in the story of the excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and those Greek ruins were in Italy the subjugated. The inspiring places were a source of joy to all of France who cared for the arts—and who in France is born without artistic appreciation!
It was in these years, the Iate Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries that Pompeii was relieved of the weight of ashes under. which Vesuvius had buried her, and there lay revealed a city built by Greeks of the colony in Italy. And Greek Pompeii furnished the fundamentals of the styles which we name after the French political periods of the Directory and the Empire.
Discoveries in the pretty town were begun long be-fore, had their influence in England under the Adam Brothers, in France under Louis XVI; but in Napoleon's time a more intense consistency in style was the rule. Also a certain austerity crept in. The furniture and draperies of the time became so rigid as to seem to scorn mere personal luxury.
It was in the decorative detail that the period ex-celled. The luxurious sweep of a chaise-longue or the cajoling undulations of a bed a la Pompadour vanished utterly. The square lines of the' Empire chair were built for a severer state of mind, a more evident rectitude of the spirit.
The bed became square as a box, and in spite of its decorations suggested severity. The silks which dressed it took on the same simplicity. The brocade cover of the bed was in itself a sign of the wish to destroy all evidence of an abolished hereditary royalty. Tightly stretched across the mattress it is tucked in behind the side boards of the bed, and at top and bottom as well, with a look of absolute permanency. To complete the rigid perfection, a roll is laid at either end, cylinders one might call them, and there you have a bed of dignity and symmetry, but not one that in any way suggests repose until the housemaid has torn away cover and rolls and displayed softness beneath.
But what style lurks in all this stiffness, and how beautiful are all details! The silks present a field of satin on which a diminutive and isolated small figure is thrown in regularity of spacing. The figure is the star or the Barberini bee, or the honeysuckle or palmette of the Greek convention. More elaborate brocades were made in Lyons which carried some of the traditions of the Louis XVI style inasmuch as these were founded on the Greek. Borders for velvet or silk brocades were woven for use as edging to these when made into hangings or when fixed fiat upon the wall. These borders magnified and diversified the palmette and the honeysuckle, but sadly altered them. Or the textiles were woven in stripes of satin and plain silk. These stripes are of equal width and of the same color. Gone are the masses of flowers brocaded in countless tones, or the broken stripes of many colors which were flounced and gallooned to make lovely the bed of a few years earlier.
Beds to be in fashion were placed against the wall, which made the silk-covered rolls almost a necessity for symmetry's sake. Yet, as a bed needs to make a distinct effect against the wall the fashion was to hang a drapery behind it. Even a baldaquin was used as a point from which the drapery was hung, but infinitely simple were all lines.
Against the wall the flat drapery was allowed three box-plaits, one in the center, one at each end, with the merest suggestion of "eased" material between. Plain satin or dull silk served, unless the bed-cover demanded a repetition of its own pattern.
Walls made background for ladies witty and ladies pretty, so were allowed the effects which never fail to flatter women's appearance—the draping of silk. But this draping had none of the graceful abandon of former days. It was copied in effect from Pompeian frescoes, from the paintings so recently exposed by the director of the Italian workman's shovel.
And the result was an entrancing classicism. To be-gin with, the silk for hanging was plain, relying on its own lustrous quality and on its color for shading. It was hung from the top of the cornice, which in itself was a mere molding, in the simplest manner possible, that is, in far-spaced single box-plaits. The manner of attaching to the wall was entirely concealed. The scantiness of the stuff kept it in the desired straight lines, yet folds enough were apparent to make the room soft and colorful without a suggestion of the luxury which leads to decadence. Against such a background were grouped the ladies of Josephine's court, amid those simple silks were perpetrated the badinage, and the cutting wit for which it was celebrated, and here the painters, David, Ingres and a host of others caught inspiration for their lovely portraits.
The men who had been designing delightful trifles such as a tangle of garden tools and flowers, of musical instruments and ribbons, for silk weavers and workers in ormolu or gilt bronze, began forthwith to compose on lines of the Greek. Thus it is that one finds on the furniture metal ornaments of a perfection unexcelled. The little motifs are hand chiseled after models drawn by the best of artists, executed by talented workers, and are almost worthy to be classed among jewelry. In their best development the Directory and Empire styles cause thrills of delight to the appreciative and discriminating. They have dignity and symmetry in the larger lines, and in detail are unsurpassed for delicacy of workmanship.
This condition required a change in stuffs. If the object was to center the eye on the beauty of the orfevrerie, the jewel-like incrustations of gilt on mahogany, then simplicity of woven design followed naturally. The colors of these silks were as thoroughly different from those of the Eighteenth Century as was the drawing. The graded tones all disappeared and colors were frankly red or blue, green, yellow or brown. The red was deep, the blue was sapphire, the green was clear, neither tinged with yellow nor sharpened with blue; the yellow also clear. In fact subtlety in color had disappeared.
Behold France, then, trying to eschew beauty as more or less a sin against the new order, yet at the same time eager to express her people's innate spirit, her god-given talent for enrapturing the eye. The early days of the Empire saw the necessity of a strictness in outward appearance, a stiff rectitude a lucidity without shading. Napoleon having come from a simple life was in the proper form to continue it. He had larger matters in hand than the mere making home beautiful even though that home were the palace of a dethroned king.
Affairs of beautifying were in the hands of the artists. I imagine these men as having been in hiding in garrets or in farms, and of peeping timidly out when the storm was over, and of trembling lest their hands betray the old methods of design once so acceptable to Court and aristocracy. The spirit of the times must be followed. Formal and cold the Pompeian model seemed perhaps but how safe it was. Even the arrogant citizen, the class-leveler of a few years back, could not find in it reminders of the hated Eighteenth Century masters.
Napoleon as Emperor adhered ever to the new style, which then passed from cold thin austerity into a more elegant phase, but ever were present the Greek out-lines and Greek details of restraint and beauty. On his brow he wore not the crown of kings but the laurel wreath of the Greek victor, when standing for his portrait as monarch.
When wealth and luxury and a proper court of wits and beauties had been established around the Emperor, a greater elegance was demanded. It was then that Madame Recamier flashed her wit and beauty in the crowd, the beautiful Pauline Bonaparte undulated through gay soirees, Madame de Stael showed her bright mind by tongue and pen, and the Empress herself headed the circle.
Rooms where these famous folk foregathered were cold and formal when decorated only with bands of frescoed Greek ornament. Something softer and more intimate was required, some treatment that warmed the salon but still kept the flavor of the Greek. But the silks hung over the walls still keep the idea of restraint and severity. Windows that broke into the walls were hung with short valances like the wall drapery, but on either side fell a fringed cascade like a jabot of flatness and restraint.
Who could avoid noticing the similarity between such drapings and the scant dresses of the time? The Greek ideal furnished the inspiration for both. The celebrated portrait of Madame Recamier by David might have been taken from a Pompeian fresco. Madame de Stael was wearing such a costume and shining in such a room when she evoked from Napoleon his surprising reply. "Whom, Sire, do you consider the most important woman in France?" "She who bears the greatest number of children, Madame," he replied to the childless intellectual.
Going back to the subject of coverings for chairs, most important of all were the tapestries. The Napoleonic era is generally considered negligible as to the manufacture of tapestries. That is true as to the scenes made for hangings. A few of these were woven, precise and exact in design and execution, but mainly lacking in charm. Moreover they had no borders. But the furniture covers of the time are marvels in de-sign and in technique of weaving. The favored factory was Beauvais. The artists who produced the most exquisite design of the Louis XVI expression turned their facile talent to the creation under the new manner. In place of flowers and fripperies, they drew Greek amphora: and vases, instead of small animals they drew Greek medallions, surrounding all with a formal border in which the palmette played its part.
And the hand of the weaver had not lost its cunning. Indeed it seemed rather to have it in greater development. Never have finer nor more charming tapestry coverings been woven than those of the Empire period. They show the greatest achievements in design and execution. Fortunate are those who possess them as they display their thrilling beauty against the lightly carved and decorated mahogany of the frames. As for colors, the uncompromising primal colors shown in silk are absent here, and instead we have a blending of as lovely tones as ever pleased a king's favorite in the preceding century.