Empire style furniture: Influenced by the ancient empires of Rome, Greece and Egypt

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Katerina Bulovska
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Empire style is an early 19th-century design movement in furniture and architecture that originated in France. It developed during the rule of Napoleon I, who became Emperor of the First French Empire (1804-1814), hence the name of the style. Since the French government was transformed from a republic into an empire, Napoleon often compared himself with Emperor Augustus and developed a special affection for the classical antiquity. That was also noticeable in the design of the furniture, as it had been adorned with symbols and ornaments borrowed from the great Greek and Roman Empires.

Napoleon returned with a glorious victory from Egypt in 1798. With the scientific research and the archeological discoveries that followed, the Egyptian motifs like sphinxes, lotus blossom, winged lions, and caryatids were more popular than ever. Soon after, the combination of Egyptian patterns, as well as those drawn from Ancient Greece and Rome, became well-known characteristics of the Empire style of decoration.

The furniture was made from heavy woods imported from the colonies, such as mahogany and ebony. Marble tops were also used, but perhaps the most popular were the Napoleonic symbols, the bee, the eagle, and a large “N” surrounded by laurel leaves. The decoration very often included gilded bronze details of high-quality craftsmanship.

The apartment of Empress Joséphine in the Château de Malmaison. Author: Moonik. CC BY-SA 3.0

The antique Greco-Roman or Egyptian motifs found in the bronze mounts include tombs, Pompeian mural decoration, cornucopias, the winged thunderbolt of Jupiter, Mercury’s caduceus, Neptune’s trident, Bacchus’ thyrsus, casques, lamps, tripods, kraters, winged torches, and musical instruments. There were also floral and animal motifs, of which poppies were the most popular. Empress Joséphine’s favorite decoration was the swan as she was very fond of them, that is noticeable in the state rooms of her home at Malmaison.

Bergère (enclosed chair) and Fauteuil (open arm chair) by Pierre-Antoine Bellangé (1758–1827), c. 1815

Empire style chairs had broad and simple lines but not necessarily straight. The most characteristic of this style is the chair of the ancient curule form with elegantly curving X-form supports. The beds of this period are called lit en bateau, or boat beds, and have new form inspired from the antique. They are placed in a richly draped alcove, with the head and foot on equal height, and a small roll at the top. The tables, at least the larger part of them, are in a round shape since the Greek and Roman tables were also round. Table tops are usually of marble, while the legs are in the form of columns or crafted in incredibly strange figures.

Tripod table in Empire Style. Author: User:Carolus. CC BY-SA 3.0

The Empire style was widely adopted across Europe, and it became dominant in Russia. The most influential interior decorators and designers of Empire furnishings were the official architects to the court of Napoleon, Charles Percier (1764–1838) and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine (1762–1853). Their handbook Recueil des décorations Intérieures, published in 1812 in Paris, was an essential for every designer of the Empire style.

French Empire mantel clock

In the United States, Empire style gained its greatest popularity after 1820 and remained in fashion all the way through the mid 19th century. It is considered the second phase of the Neoclassical style. A perfect example is the Red Room at the White House, furnished in American Empire style. The French immigrant, Charles-Honore’ Lannuier, was among the first cabinet makers that welcomed the Empire style in his New York workshop, by adding gilded carving to his pieces.

American Empire style sofa, c. 1820-30, wood, mahogany veneer and brocade upholstery, Dayton Art Institute. Author: Wmpearl. CC0

Duncan Phyfe’s shop was also influenced by the Empire style, but the centers of elaborate pieces of furniture were in Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. In America, Empire style furniture could be found at all price points, so it was purchased not only by the wealthy, but also by the people who lived more modestly.

First Lady Nancy Reagan in the Red Room, her favorite White House room, 1981

The Empire style remained popular in Italy longer than in most of Europe, probably because of a revival of Empire style that followed the unification of Italy in 1870, sometimes referred to as Italian Empire style. In Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Empire style was also known as Biedermeier style, Greek Revival, Egyptian Revival, Regency Style and late-Federal style.