A master military commander and skilled propagandist who crowns himself emperor needs the right accouterments to back up his chutzpah. The Empire style provided Napoleon Bonaparte with all that and then some. Think of Empire—say it the French way, “AM-peer” for antique-fair street cred—as neoclassical on steroids. Napoleon took a Sun King’s interest in the decorative arts, restoring the porcelain, furniture, and textile industries of France to their former glory after quality had declined in the early years of the Revolution.
Forms still looked to Greece and especially to gaudier Rome for inspiration, but their proportions tended to be heavier than their Directoire and Louis XVI predecessors. Even side chairs carry the feel of monuments. After all, this is an era that saw the building of not one, but two Arc de Triomphes, and both the heroic marble sculptures by Antonio Canova and florid portraits by Jacques Louis David idealized the emperor as a hero and a god. Subtlety is not the Empire period’s strong suit.
Aside from symbols that implied the power of the military state—laurels, figures of Victory, eagles—Egyptian motifs, reflecting Napoleon’s campaigns along the Nile, abound. Sphinxes glower from console table legs, palms sprout on friezes, winged lions hold up chair seats. Swans, a favorite animal of the Empress, turn up again and again, especially whilst curving their necks as armrests.
The movement was hugely influential, inflecting the lighter Biedermeier taste in Germany and dominating salon aesthetics as far afield as Russia. It even leaped across the pond—the Federal style of the new American republic is our own homegrown version of Empire.
Inspired by the richness and splendor of this look? Discover Empire items on The HighBoy.