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French Empire Furniture

1804 - 1814

The French Empire style, or First Empire, was developed during the reign of Napoleon, and the letter "N" was found everywhere in the decoration and interiors of the period. The style was a revival of Greek, Roman and Egyptian motifs which had begun in the neo classical period and extending through the time of Directoire furniture. Empire style was paralled in England in the time of Regency furniture and in American Empire furniture.

Empire Chair
Empire Chair, 1810.
Carved and gilded beechwood, upholstered in red silk damask.

Characteristic Features

The wreath, torch, Sphinx, Greek band, honeysuckle, Roman eagle, columns and scroll supports predominated in 1st Empire furniture. Classic shapes or lines and classic decorations in chiseled bronze, called ormolu, were notable attempts in the neoclassic style. The subjects for ormolu decorations were taken from Greek mythology and were often combined with emblems of liberty, lyres, rosettes, and so forth.

Empire Egyptian Style Chairs
Empire Egyptian Style Chairs, around 1803-1813.
Mahogany, with ormolu (gilt-bronze) mounts.
The original designer of this kind of chair, Denon, copied a number of designs for chairs from the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs, including several which relate to this chair.

There was also much fine brass inlaying figures on Empire furniture. Marquetry and carving were discarded and plain surfaces were decorated with brass and ormolu mounts of antique emblems. Mahogany was the principal wood employed and considerable veneering was used.

On some French empire furniture we also see fine "turning", not spiral, but in a round style which can be seen in the legs of sofa on which Madame Recamier reclines in the well known portrait of her by Jacques Louis David, as in the picture below. David, who was court painter under Louis XVI, became during the Empire era the prime influence and eventually a kind of artistic dictator of this movement to revive the classical.

Madame Recamier
Madame Recamier

Influence of Napoleon

Napoleon wanted to be surrounded by all the dignity and pomp associated with the great Roman generals, and those who served him catered to this wish. On his return from Borne and Egypt furniture made for his palaces reflected styles he had seen in both places. As such it is because much so called Late Empire furniture was really just slavish imitation of what had been made for another time and different conditions that it is sometimes judged the least attractive of the period.

Empire Etagere
Empire Etagere, 1812.
Mahogany, on a carcase of oak and poplar; the capital mounts chased and gilt, the handles probably lacquered brass. Top with Rosso antico marble slab.
This form of small open bookcase was an innovation in the early 1800s.

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