French Empire Furniture: Style & Characteristics

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, learn about the magnificent and ostentatious furniture created during the regime of Napoleon Bonaparte. Explore the development of the French Empire style and the main characteristics of the furniture pieces.

Napoleon and the French Empire

Napoleon Bonaparte is often remembered as a military leader and a fierce ruler who commanded wars and controlled important parts of Europe. But he was also very aware of the propagandist value of art and promoted a style that he considered the best for exhibiting the greatness of France.

The French Empire (First French Empire) was a short period in the history of this nation, between 1804 and 1814. During this time, Napoleon ruled as Emperor. He gradually gained power and influence and in 1804, he was proclaimed Emperor by the French Senate. His regime was characterized by military expansion and constant wars. France conquered neighboring territories and gained control over several nations of the continent.

The French Empire was led by a totalitarian government. There were no real democratic elections or freedom of speech. However, there were significant advances in public education and religious tolerance, among other fields. Napoleon's autocratic character touched many aspects of the French life, including society, economy and artistic trends.

Style of French Empire Furniture

The French Empire style was promoted by Napoleon as a propagandist mean of showing the greatness of the empire. The government dictated guidelines and requirements to regulate the style of the artistic creations and crafts production. The furniture makers had to adapt to the Emperor's taste for massive elements and his desire to express power, and they designed accordingly.

Bedroom of Napoleon in the Rohan Palace. Strasbourg, France (c. 1805)
Bedroom Napoleon Rohan Palace

The style spread from France to other parts of Europe, partly thanks to the military campaigns. The Empire style is often considered an evolution of the Neoclassical style, which had emerged in the second half of the 18th century and had some common characteristics.

Characteristics of French Empire Furniture

Most French Empire furniture had an imposing and massive character, meant to impress. Therefore, we find many pieces with big dimensions and also with plenty of decorative elements, which were included to make furniture look stunning and glorious.

The pieces had a rigid layout and featured basic geometric forms, often with flat surfaces and sharp corners. The compositions were symmetrical and all the elements were generally replicated on each side.

Napoleon Throne for the Senate (1804)
Napoleon Throne

The inspiration came mostly from the Classical World (Ancient Greece and Rome), especially from the Roman Empire. The idealized simplicity and soberness of this civilization were admired as an example to follow.

The motifs for decoration were usually inspired both by war and by the Classical World. Trophies, spires and coats of arms were some of the military elements. Lions, eagles, deities and creatures from Roman mythology were also used. Some pieces also had sphinxes, palm leaves and other Egyptian-inspired motifs.

A peculiar element was the letter N (Napoleon's initial) surrounded by a crown of laurel leaves, which was considered a symbol of victory and glory and was used in several pieces of the Emperor's furniture.

Clock decorated with Mars and Venus (1810)
Clock with Mars and Venus

Wood Sourcing and Detail Work

Until 1806, mahogany was commonly used. But because of the Napoleonic wars and the blockade he imposed on British companies, the furniture makers gradually abandoned the use of exotic woods in favor of locally-available materials.

Walnut, maple and beech became the common choices. Some exotic woods continued to be imported from the French colonies but they were scarce and, therefore, used with moderation. For example, small mahogany pieces, veneers or small ebony details.

Coin cabinet made of mahogany with silver inlays (c. 1809)
coin cabinet

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