19th Century French Furniture: History & Styles

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

France had a difficult 19th century, but this didn't stop them from making great furniture. In this lesson, we are going to explore the three main styles of this century, and see how they reflected major changes within the nation.

French Furniture of the 19th Century

The 19th century was a troubled time for France. Experiments with liberty and freedom led to terrible violence and the rise of powerful emperors. World revolutions challenged France's role as a global empire. Technological changes signaled a massive rearranging of European social structures. But at least they had great chairs. An era of revolutions and empires, all captured in some darn fine upholstery.

Empire Style Furniture

For our glimpse into the 19th-century, we'll be exploring three main styles of furniture. The first is the Empire Style, which dominated France from roughly 1800 to 1820. This style has its roots in the rise of a man named Napoleon Bonaparte, who rose from the bloodstained ashes of the French Revolution(s) to become Emperor of France in 1804.

Prior to the rise of Napoleon, France and the United States were sharing a fascination in the ancient Roman Republic, an idealized symbol of their new republics. After the French Revolution fell into chaos, Napoleon consolidated power but kept that general aesthetic, with one exception. He moved it from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire.

Empire Style chairs. Note the eagle--a symbol of the Roman Empire
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Empire furniture, therefore, is focused on many motifs from the Roman Empire, including symmetrical and curved forms with columns, scrolls, and other Classical motifs for decoration. However, Napoleon took this even further and began utilizing motifs from all ancient civilizations as a symbol of his absolute power and place in history. Greek-style chairs, Etruscan-style patterns and Egyptian hieroglyphics abound. The Empire Style of furniture synthesizes all of these elements in sheer opulence, with gilding, polished lacquer, inlay, and bright upholstery denoting refinement, sophistication, and power in every chair, desk, and cabinet.

Empire Style chair modeled after ancient Greek furniture
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Louis-Philippe Style Furniture

Napoleon lost power around 1815 and died in 1821. At this, the exiled French monarchy returned and regained control. From 1830 to 1848, France again had a king, whose name was Louis-Philippe d'Orléans. Under him, the revitalized monarchy rejected Napoleon's Empire Style and the Revolution-era motifs within it, and sought to communicate the traditions and power of the king.

The Louis-Philippe Style is grand, featuring plenty of gilding and lacquer, but also features darker stains and woods, tighter geometric shapes and more controlled expressions of form. Overall, it's somber and soft, with more curved edges and a contained, regal attitude. In terms of interior design, the focal point was often the dresser, chest, or table, as opposed to the functional desks that the practical-minded Napoleon favored in the Empire Style.

Napoleon III Style Furniture

Louis-Philippe was overthrown in another French revolution in 1848, and his furniture quickly faded out of style. You can't have a monarch's furniture in a revolutionary state, after all. Instead, France saw a revitalization of all thingsā€¦Napoleon. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte seized power as France's new president and then emperor and took the name Napoleon III, after his uncle.

Napoleon III Style furniture formally debuted in the 1844 French Industrial Exposition, but was really popular from around 1850 to 1870. Napoleon III ended up being much less concerned with legitimizing himself through ancient empires than his uncle, and instead connected the concept of empire to pure, unadulterated wealth.

Napoleon III Style furniture can be identified by its lavishness, high-quality craftsmanship and obsessive attention to detail. Ironically, in its attention to wealth this furniture emulates and revives stylistic elements from many eras of the French monarchy, when the king's power was absolute and uncontested. Most notably, perhaps, are the light colors and seashell patterns borrowed from the Rococo, an 18th-century style focused on pure whimsy and elegance. The Napoleon III Style captures this elegance primarily through the use of material: mahogany and ebony are inlaid with porcelain or pearl to create an opulent aesthetic that's lighter and airier than the serious Empire Style.

Napoleon III Style cabinet
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