French Empire Style Architecture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The French Empire Style was not a long movement in architecture, but it was significant. In this lesson, we are going to check out this style, along with some examples, and see what inspired it.

Architecture of the French Empire

If there's one thing we know about French culture, it's that style matters. So, obviously if there's going to be a French Empire, it's got to look good. Napoleon firmly believed that a successful empire was an aesthetically pleasing empire, and he put great efforts into helping to coordinate a national aesthetic during his reign - to the point that he personally visited textile and furniture makers across France. The result was the Empire Style, which is traditionally dated to the same years as Napoleon's reign as emperor (1804-1815).

France's Empire Style was predominantly focused on furniture and interior design. There was never a codified Empire Style of architecture, although we can see the foundations of one being established in this time. Still, Napoleon had a distinct vision for France. He wanted it to be powerful, he wanted it to be respected, and he wanted it to be darn good looking.

Background on the Empire Style

To understand how the Empire Style impacted French architecture, we first need a little background on this movement. In the mid-late 18th century, the United States completed its revolution and became independent. Building their new republic on the model of the Roman Republic, they ushered in a massive revival of neoclassical (Greek- and Roman-inspired) architecture. In the late 18th century, France went through its own revolution, and the Neoclassical fervor spread through this nation as well.

Napoleon rose to power out of the chaos of the French Revolution. He worked his way into leadership, and was named First Consul (the title of the leader of the Roman Republic). In 1802, this was amended to First Consul for Life (the strategy used by Julius Caesar to maintain power). In this time, Napoleon leaned heavily on neoclassical art in his personal estate to imitate a good Roman consul. Finally, Napoleon had himself crowned emperor in 1804. This meant that it was time for a new aesthetic. The French Empire Style was still neoclassical in character, but no longer drew from the Roman Republic. It now drew from the Roman Empire.

In furniture and interior design, the French Empire Style was dominated by motifs of empire. Many of these were repurposed Roman imperial themes, like eagles, laurels, urns, and columns. Others motifs were directly relevant to France's empire, most notably Egyptian hieroglyphics and symbols that reminded people of Napoleon's victories in Egypt.

Empire Architecture

While there was never a fully unified Empire Style of architecture, the attitudes, motifs, and symbolism of the Empire Style did take part in Napoleon's early efforts at transforming Paris. Had he stayed in power longer, he may have unified the style. He didn't, however, and so we're left with several relatively minor Empire-esque additions, as well as four very prominent examples of Napoleon's ultimate vision.

The Arc(s) de Triomphe

The most famous architectural success of the French Empire Style is easily the triumphal arch. In the Roman Empire, emperors would build monumental arches to celebrate their victories and honor the troops. A Roman victory was not complete until the army marched through the triumphal arch.

The Arc de Triomphe of central Paris
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In 1806, Napoleon commissioned a triumphal arch of his own to celebrate the early victories of his empire and to honor his troops. While it would not be completed by the time of his defeat and exile, the Arc de Triomphe of Paris ended up 164 feet tall, 148 feet long, and 72 feet wide. It was modeled on the Arch of Titus (built by the 1st century Roman emperor), and was complete with reliefs of Napoleon in a toga, being crowned by the allegorical figure of Victory (a Roman tradition).

This Arc de Triomphe is the most famous, but it actually wasn't the only one Napoleon commissioned. An arch was also commissioned in 1806 to honor Napoleon's troops and his military victories in 1805. This is the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, and since it's smaller, it was actually finished during Napoleon's reign. Its proportions directly reflect the Roman Arch of Septimius Severus, and it features reliefs of battles in Napoleon's campaign.

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