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Art & Design

Consular & Empire Style

The Consular period in France began in November 1799 when the Directory was overthrown in a bloodless coup and replaced by three consuls, including Napoleon. This overthrow followed a series of military disasters and insurrections that led to a breakdown of faith in the government. A few weeks after the coup Napoleon was named First Consul. In 1802 he was named First Consul for life and in December 1804 Napoleon crowned himself Emperor. The period of his reign as Emperor, from May 1804 to June 1815, is known as the Empire period.

Napoleon, having gained his position through his political and military achievements, used artists, designers and architects to promote and legitimise his regime. He appointed Charles Percier (1764–1838) and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine (1762–1853) as the official architects and designers of the Empire period and they became major exponents of the Empire style.

Design of the Consular and Empire periods was characterised by militaristic elements – symbols of war and victory, imperial emblems, such as the golden eagle, classical palm leaves and laurel wreaths. These symbols of power made a direct visual connection between the regime and the glory and authority of the ancient Roman emperors.

Sphinxes, winged lions and creatures with heads of eagles were employed as table legs and armrests on chairs. Broad, austere surfaces of exotic woods, particularly mahogany, were ornamented with motifs in marquetry and ormolu (gilt-bronze) and the heavy, monumental style of the furniture reflected a grandiose magnificence. Heavy bases accentuated a monumental appearance and symmetry was closely followed. At the height of the Empire period, the style was majestic and magnificent.
Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign brought about a craze in France for all things Egyptian. The detailed drawings of art and architecture published on his return by artist and archaeologist Dominique-Vivant Denon led to the incorporation of Egyptian motifs in the furniture and decorative arts of the following decades.

As well as military, Egyptian and Classical imagery, the Empire period also embraced opulence and imagery of love, sensuality and seduction: the swan – one of the forms the god Zeus took to seduce mortal women; the lyre – an instrument of art and seduction; and bows and arrows – the tools of Cupid.

Swans, also emblems of Venus and the adopted symbol of Josephine – were employed as armrests or as entire arms of chairs. Aspects of the myth of Cupid and Psyche were also a common theme. The butterfly symbolising both Psyche and the soul was a recurrent motif.

Other symbols and motifs of the Empire period included the bee, a symbol of immortality and resurrection, specifically chosen by Napoleon to link his new Empire to the very origins of France, the cornucopia or horn of plenty; images of Mars and Venus symbolising love and peace brought about through military success, and the initials of the Emperor and Empress – N for Napoleon and J for Josephine.

The Empire style achieved great popularity and was adopted in courts throughout Europe. In England it was known as the Regency style.

JACOB FRÈRES (attributed to) (manufacturer)
France 1796-1803
Charles PERCIER (after) (designer)
Gondola armchair from Madame Bonaparte’s boudoir at Saint-Cloud Palace (Fauteuil gondole du boudoir de Madame Bonaparte au château de Saint-Cloud) (1802)
gilt and painted Beech (Fagus sp.) and Walnut (Juglans sp.), velvet, gold thread
77.0 x 51.0 x 66.0 cm
Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison & Bois-Préau, Rueil-Malmaison (inv. MM 40.47.942) on deposit from the Mobilier National, Paris (inv. GMT 1504)
© Photo RMN - Droits réservés
Above: Jacob Frères was the firm of brothers Georges II (1768–1803) and François-Honoré Jacob (1770–1841) that produced luxury furnishings from 1796–1803. Read more
Above: Jacob Frères was the firm of brothers Georges II (1768–1803) and François-Honoré Jacob (1770–1841) that produced luxury furnishings from 1796–1803. The brothers were the sons of Georges Jacob (1739–1814) who had made furniture for the royal household and later the Committee of Public Safety. Jacob Frères was retained by Josephine Bonaparte to furnish her many residences. This gondola chair with swan armrests was designed by architect Charles Percier based on previous gondola model armchairs supplied by Jacob Frères for Josephine’s boudoir at Malmaison. Close
    Bed (Lit) Empire period 1804-15
    Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), gilt bronze
    135.0 x 202.0 cm
    Les Arts Décoratifs,
    musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris
    (inv. 8584)
    Photo: Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris – Jean Tholance
  • MAISON GRAND FRÈRES, Lyon (manufacturer)
    France active 1800-10
    Alexandre BROGNIART (decorator)
    France 1770-1847
    Hanging for the Emperor’s Premier Salon at the Palais de Meudon (Tissu pour le Premier Salon de l'Empereur au Palais de Meudon) 1808-09 (detail)
    140.0 x 54.0 cm
    Mobilier National, Paris (inv. GMTC 99/1)
    © Photo RMN - Christian Jean
  • MANUFACTURE DE SÈVRES (manufacturer)
    France est. 1756
    Egyptian inkwell (Encrier égyptien) (1802)
    porcelain (patinated and gilt)
    22.0 x 26.0 cm
    Sèvres Cité de la Céramique, Paris
    (inv. MNC 2648)
    © Photo RMN - Christian Jean
  • Andre-Antoine RAVRIO (attributed to)
    French 1759-1814
    Love led by Fidelity, clock (Pendule: L'Amour conduit par la Fidélité) (c. 1805)
    The chariot of Love led by Fidelity, clock (Pendule: Le char de l'Amour conduit par la Fidélité) (c. 1805)
    gilt bronze, enamel, marble
    52.0 x 52.0 x 17.0 cm
    Fondation Napoléon, Paris
    Donation Lapeyre (inv. 488)
    © Fondation Napoléon – Patrice Maurin Berthier

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Think, Investigate, Create

Visual Communication and Design

Look closely at examples of Empire furniture. Which of the symbols and characteristics mentioned above can you identify?

Imagine that you have been engaged to design the furniture for the ceremonial office of a new ruler who wants to define a unique style that draws on past symbols of power. Explore the symbols and motifs used to demonstrate power in the past. Design a room that embodies the power of the office-holder and presents a suitable image. Design a suitable costume for the office-holder.

Research the symbols of power used by institutions and leaders today. Identify examples that interest you and explain their effect and meaning.

Designers such as Versace have employed the imagery of wealth and power to create contemporary fashion statements and status symbols. Using selected motifs of the Empire period, create a fabric design that recontextualises the imagery, making it relevant to our times.

Another designer who has been influenced by historical French furniture design is Philippe Starck. Find an example Starck’s Ghost chair. Describe the ways this design uses historical elements and the elements that make it modern.

Philippe Starck was one of the designers commissioned by French president François Mitterand in 1982 to redesign his apartments at the Elysée Palace, the official residence of the President of the French Republic, and the place where Napoleon signed his abdication on 22 June 1815. Find an example of contemporary interior design that works sympathetically with historical architecture. Explain why you have chosen this example discussing design elements and principles, materials and style.

Educator's Guide