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Art & Design

Napoleon & the Regeneration of Decorative Arts Industries in France

In an attempt to wage economic war with England, Napoleon banned trade between England and French territories and allies. The elimination of British competition under what became known as the Continental System created an internal market within France.

To provide employment for the citizens and to build a strong economy in the face of trade blockades and embargoes, French manufacturing and industry was supported and encouraged by a system of government prizes, incentives and formal institutions, such as the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry. Industrial innovation, production and economic progress were seen as having equal importance to military success. French cotton, chemical and mechanical industries benefited as did manufacturers of luxury goods.

The Consulate and Empire era was a time of renewal for the furniture, porcelain, textile and metalwork industries, which had suffered greatly under the Revolution. Luxury once again became acceptable. To support the local textile market, Napoleon banned the wearing of muslin (imported from India via England), which had been popular in Revolutionary times. He made formal dress mandatory for court receptions to stimulate a demand for expensive textiles such as silks, velvets and satins.

Napoleon commissioned entirely new interiors to stamp his character on the many Imperial palaces and to create work for the luxury furniture industry. He created a government department called the Garde-meuble Impérial specifically to order and maintain Imperial furnishings.

The furniture company Jacob Frères (later Jacob-Desmalter) received most of the Imperial furniture commissions, providing hundreds of pieces of furniture for the imperial palaces and residences during Napoleon’s rule.

The end of the Empire period marked the end of a golden age of French craftsmanship. The abolition of the guilds during the time of the Revolution and the introduction of the factory system led to the increase of mass production and a gradual lowering of standards of craftsmanship into the nineteenth century.

France est. 1756
Pierre-Philippe THOMIRE (goldsmith)
French 1751-1843
The Emperor in coronation robes, after Gérard, tapered spindle vase, 2nd size (Vase fuseau, 2me grandeur: L’Empereur en costume de sacre d’après Gérard) 1812 (recto)
porcelain (hard-paste), gilt bronze
54.5 cm height
Fondation Napoléon, Paris
Acquisition 2002 (inv. 1165)
© Fondation Napoléon – Patrice Maurin Berthier
The porcelain factory at Sèvres, founded in 1756 to produce luxury porcelains for the royal court and the nobility, enjoyed a boom during the time of Napoleon, who saw the political value of the porcelain manufacturer as a cultural agency of the State. The high technical standards of production, sumptuous decoration and rich enamel colours of Sèvres porcelain were used to demonstrate prestige, showing France as a highly refined nation with exceedingly skilled workers. Napoleon commissioned many designs with edifying imagery that celebrated the triumphs of his regime and charted the political and cultural life of the Empire.
    Court dress and train of Mme Bérenger, worn on the day of Napoleon’s coronation (Robe et traîne de cour de Mme Bérenger portée le jour du sacre de Napoléon) 1804
    velvet, gold-embroidered silk tulle, satin
    Collection of Pierre Patrick Kaltenbach
    (Direct descendent of Mme Bérenger, who was the daughter-in-law of a Protestant Desert Father, Jean Bérenger, The Dove)
    © Fondation Napoléon - Patrice Maurin Berthier
  • MANUFACTURE DE SÈVRES (manufacturer)
    France est. 1756
    Imperial hunting tea service (Cabaret des chasses impériales) 1812
    porcelain (hard-paste), silver-gilt, Morocco leather
    20.0 x 49.0 x 40.0 cm (overall) (closed)
    Fondation Napoléon, Paris
    Donation Lapeyre (inv. 93)
    © Fondation Napoléon – Patrice Maurin Berthier
  • MANUFACTURE DES GOBELINS, Paris (manufacturer)
    France est. 1662
    Gioacchino SERANGELI (after)
    Napoleon receiving the deputies of the Army in the Louvre after his coronation, 8 December 1804 (Napoléon reçoit au Louvre les députés de l’armée après son couronnement le 8/12/1804) 1809-15
    wool, silk, (haute lisse)
    335.0 x 195.0 cm
    Mobilier national, Paris
    (inv. GMTT 250)
    © Mobilier national - Pierre Langlois

Think, Investigate, Create

Visual Communication and Design

Many countries have traditional art practices and industries that have enjoyed times of growth and contraction with the influence of fashion, politics and economics. Find out about the traditional decorative arts of a country of your choice. What are the factors that have influenced the development of traditional arts and crafts (religion, politics, natural resources)? In what form are these practices maintained today?

Research an artist, designer or craftsperson whose work uses traditional practices. With reference to a specific example, explain how these are evident in their work.

Find three facts about how Australian Federal and State governments support art and arts industries.

Find three facts about the impact on the economy of art and arts industries.

Explore the Australian Tapestry Workshop website. Choose three designs and explain what they say about Australian life and culture.

Educator's Guide

Further research on this topic: