In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte had himself anointed and crowned Emperor of France. The furniture style known as Empire is a style of majestic grandeur that Napoleon felt fitting to honor his glory. He considered himself the greatest world ruler since Julius Caesar. The Empire style is the last of the great French styles that widely influenced furniture design throughout the world. During his rule, Napoleon conquered Italy and Egypt. He was overwhelmed by his conquest of these countries. He brought back to France archaeological wonders of Egypt, the long-forgotten ancient empire. He was proud of his conquest of Italy and Egypt and proudly considered himself as the first worthy successor to Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Furniture designed in this period was meant to imitate the designs of these great empires. Napoleon commissioned the greatest artist of Europe to create architecture and decoration that would equate the grandeur of Greece, the glory of Rome and the massiveness of Egypt.
The Empire style furniture is massive, in grand scale and very masculine. It has a severe, heavy, masculine look with no carving. The wood carving which is very common in the previous styles of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI is generally replaced with wood veneers polished to a high sheen. To equalize the bareness of wood veneer, metal gilts are used to adorn the furniture. A good clue to identifying the Empire style is the vulgar use of ormolu mounts. Ormolus are gilt-metal decorations usually in different decorative motifs. These are usually drawn from antique sources or patriotic inspiration. There are motifs derived from Egyptian archeology. Falcon, sphinxes, cobras, obelisks, winged lions are just some of these Egyptian inspired decorations. Napoleon’s fascination with his conquest of Egypt and later on the excavation of ruins by the French Egyptologists created so much interest in everything related to Egypt.
There are also motifs derived from ancient Greek and Roman design. Vases, lamps, torches, heads of Greek gods, ram’s head and cornucopias are among the many Greek and Roman inspired decorations incorporated into the Empire style of furniture. French Patriotism grew stronger during Napoleon’s rule and it was evident in the many patriotically inspired decorations which included laurel wreaths, eagles, swords, lances, rifles, drum and bugles. The use of legs that are shaped like animals or sphinxes is very typical to the Empire style. The graceful cabriole legs of the previous styles have been replaced with the massive, more often overstated and vulgar use of legs that are shaped like animals.
The following are the general characteristics of the Empire style of furniture:
1. It has heavy masculine look.
2. Wood veneers polished to high sheen are used instead of the ornate wood carving usually associated with the previous French furniture styles.
3. The excessive use of large, often badly cast ormolu mounts.
4. Wood back chairs with upholstered seats. These include the barrel armchair which is a very typical Empire style chair.
5. The use of designs inspired by classical Greece.
6. Mirror-back console table. This is usually used by the ladies to check their no-longer floor-length hemlines.
7. The use of motifs inspired by ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece.
8. The use of Patriotic and military motifs and the use of letter “N”, Napoleon’s name initial.
In conclusion, it is relatively easy to recognize the Empire style of furniture with its massive appearance and overbearing ormolu mounts which usually depicts Egyptian, Greek and Roman themes. This style is a step backward from the simple but elegant Louis XVI style.