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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Empire Style, 1800–1815

The period of Napoleonic rule lends its name to the late Neoclassical style that characterizes artistic creations of the era, including the Directory and Consulate periods. Napoleon I visited French textile, porcelain, and furniture workshops to encourage their increased production for the greater glory of France, and all of the arts served to promote his regime. Revolutionary conquests were echoed in the fine and decorative arts, in which figures of Fame and Victory abounded (1978.55). Antique forms and ornament, already seen in the Louis XVI style, blended with Napoleon’s imperial symbols, which included the bee, the letter N surrounded by a laurel wreath, stars, the eagle, and exotic hieroglyphic motifs culled from the Egyptian campaign (May 1795–October 1799). Empress Joséphine was fond of swans; they decorate the chair arms, curtains, carpets, and porcelain in the state rooms of her home at Malmaison (1985.119; 26.256.1).

Courts across Europe adopted the Empire style, especially in Russia, where it became a staple. In Germany and Austria, it coexisted with the gentler Biedermeier associated with modest domestic interiors. Charles Percier (1764–1838) and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine (1762–1853) were the two most influential figures in the field of Empire decoration and furnishing. Official architects to the court of Napoleon, their main responsibility was the renovation of the various royal residences. Their Recueil de décorations intérieures (1812) was an essential handbook of the Empire style.

Egyptian elements and themes were imported and distributed principally by Baron Dominique Vivant Denon (1747–1825), the archaeologist to the Middle East expedition. In 1802, he published Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte pendant les campagnes du Général Bonaparte, in which drawings and etchings of herms, palm leaves, mummified Egyptians, caryatids, and other exotica are copied directly from temples, funeral columns, and royal tombs. Later appointed director of the Central Museum of Arts (Louvre), Denon was instrumental in associating the future emperor with Egyptianized design in France, though Egyptomania already had became à la mode in the eighteenth century (41.188; 26.168.77; 41.205.2; 1996.30).

Neoclassical and Egyptian images enlivened Empire objects of every description, including wall decorations (27.191.2), silver (34.17.1a–c), papiers peints (wallpaper) by Jean Zuber and Joseph Dufour, fabrics from Jouy and Lyon (X.404; 28.28.1), Gobelins tapestries (43.99), Sèvres and Dagoty china (1985.119; 56.29.1–.8), and furniture (23.147.1; 24.230; 07.225.53; 2000.189; 19.182.5). Usually made of mahogany from Cuba and the Antilles (which replaced the variety of precious woods previously used), and fitted with brass and ormolu figurines drawn from myth and history, Empire furniture was largely austere and geometric. Goldsmith Pierre Philippe Thomire (1751–1843) drew recognition as a skilled maker of bronze mounts for such pieces (44.152a,b; 1978.55; 26.256.2,.3). Henri Auguste (1759–1816), Jean-Baptiste Claude Odiot (1763–1850) (26.256.1), and Martin Guillaume Biennais (1764–1843) (34.17.1a–c) crafted elegant services, nefs, jewels, and snuffboxes in precious metals for the emperor and empress, sometimes after Percier and Fontaine designs.

Painting was enlisted in the commemoration of Napoleonic triumphs. Jacques Louis David, who had used his paintbrush to magnify the heroic and civic virtues of the ancients, now dedicated himself with equal fervor to the service of the conquerer who personified the empire. To David we owe such monumental spectacles as Bonaparte Crossing the Saint Bernard Pass (1801; Malmaison), The Distribution of the Eagles (1810; Versailles), and Napoleon in His Study (1812; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). His group portrait, The Coronation of the Emperor Napoleon I and the Crowning of the Empress Joséphine at Notre-Dame on December 2, 1804 (1805–7; Louvre), records Napoleon’s imperial ascendancy and shows the dazzling costumes and jewelry fashionable at his court (1983.384.1a–c; 32.35.10).

François Gérard’s (1770–1837) portrait of Madame de Tallyrand depicts her wearing the iconic white gown evocative of the classical world, a garment that came into vogue during the Directory and became the height of Empire fashion (2002.31). In December 1803, Jérôme Bonaparte (1784–1860), brother of Napoleon, married Elizabeth Patterson, a young American woman, who probably wore such a wedding gown of Indian muslin and lace (1983.6.1). According to a contemporary, it “would fit easily into a gentleman’s pocket.” In France, a ban was placed on the importation of the popular Indian muslins in an effort to promote French-made materials. Silk fabric was produced in great quantity at Lyon to meet the demands of Imperial fashion (28.28.1)

Two leading painters in the Napoleonic period were Antoine Jean Gros (1771–1835) and Jean-Baptiste Isabey (1767–1855). Gros was official artist to the army and eyewitness to some of the most famous battles of the Imperial epoch. His masterpieces include General Bonaparte at Arcola (1796), Napoleon in the Plague House at Jaffa (1804), and the Battlefield of Eylau (1808) (all in the Louvre). Isabey was chief painter to Empress Joséphine and chief decorator and director of Imperial festivities to her successor, Marie-Louise. He is known for his court portraits and miniatures (17.190.1114), especially those on the celebrated Austerlitz Table designed by Percier and decorated in bronze by Thomire.