The Empire Influence on Early American Colonial Furniture StyleHistory of Early American Colonial Furniture

THE period between the execution of Louis Seize and the First Empire may be briefly passed over, as producing little of importance or significance in furniture designing. During the "Reign of Terror" it was hardly to be ex­pected that the art of cabinetmaking would flourish, and though there is a decorative phase denominated the Directoire, covering the few years in which were enacted the scenes of the Revolution the division is an artificial one save as regards history alone, for the men of the Republic had neither time, inclination or talent for the development of the arts and crafts, though, indeed, they did appoint a commission of experts to decide what furniture was worth preserving from the general destruc­tion of aristocratic possessions, as being historically valuable. The chief interest of the Directoire period for furnishers is to be found in the prosecution of certain ebnistes as being in, the service of the reviled Louis Capet, and the shifts they were driven to order clear themselves and prove their zeal for the Republic. We may come, therefore, to the style called the Empire, contemporaneous with Napoleon I., the well recognised lines of which mark the opening of the nineteenth century and its influence on influence on early american colonial furniture

The Empire style and this period of early American colonial furniture was a return to the classic lines of Greek, Roman and Egyptian design. Chairs of Greek outline and the detail of Roman decoration are prominent at this period. Typical Empire ornament include winged figures of various forms emblematic of liberty, Greek vases, laurel wreaths, lyres, the warrior's helmet and the dove.

Mahogany was the wood chiefly employed in making the early American colonial furniture of this period, and with the heavy bronze and gilt mounting usually coupled with this style the pieces present a most handsome appearance. Stateliness and dignity are features of the Empire style. Contrasted with the dainty Louis Seize designs, the transition is very marked. It is as though one stepped out of a beautiful and cosey boudoir in the castle of Marie Antoinette, into the imperial dignity of a great Roman hall. Perhaps the great little Napoleon, himself a kind of nineteenth century Caesar, favoured more the styles of antiquity than the effeminate furnishings that preceded his time of authority. The result is artistic, if at times a little stiff, and some of the Empire pieces are justly to be describe as things of beauty and a joy for ever.

Between some of the styles of early American colonial furniture it is at times difficult to draw a distinguishing line. It is never difficult to determine what is Empire. The sudden return to the lines of Egypt, Rome and Greece is plainly in evidence everywhere, as plainly, says one modern writer, " as if they all bore the plain Roman N, surmounted by a laurel wreath, or the Imperial Eagle which had so often led the French legions to victory."

We venture the opinion that there never was a style less in harmony with, French temperament than the Empire style. Heaviness, solidity and stately dignity are not characteristics of the, Frenchman, and the lines of Napoleonic furniture and of that style early American colonial furniture, though gracefully artistic, seem to be, to a large extent, the expression of an artificial con­straint.. This view is strengthened by the, fact that after the fall of Napoleon the Empire style fell quickly into disrepute, and even as all reactions lead more or less to excesses, so we have in the French furniture of the middle of the nineteenth century the "baroque " or " debased rococo," in which all the worst features of Louis Quinze ornament and design were revived, without the talent of the great designers whose genius was the redeeming feature of the eighteenth century productions.

In England the influence of the Empire and Americas early American colonial furniture is apparent in many of Sheraton's designs, some of which, except for the absence of the metal decorations, might be genuine Empire pieces. But whereas in France inlaying and carving were practically discarded in favour of ormolu (lit. gilt or gold-moulded) ornamentation, in England inlay and carving were practised par excellence by Sheraton and his school.

The two names most prominent in this period are those' of Jacob Desmalter, ebeniste, and Pereier,' the architect. These were employed by Napoleon in the work of refurnishing Malmaison, and on other important enterprises at the different palaces, including Versailles and the Toiletries. The most important work on decoration published during the Empire period was that of Beauvallet and Normand. This contains many admirable designs in the style. Another work was that of Fontaine and Perceir, in the preface of which the authors repudiate the French origin of the style, pointing out that their only merit is that of the adapter. Fontaine also published a history of the Palais Royal.

The foregoing, together with the illustrations of typical Empire designs given, will be sufficient to denote the peculiar features of this period in early American colonial furniture. Strictly it is not a French style. It is an attempt toward a French translation of classic art, and as such was distinctly successful, the result being the creation of much that was of enduring beauty. The fact that numerous Empire pieces do not touch this high ideal is no reason for discrediting the style as a whole. The feature of the period is the beautifully shaped ormolu mounting, quite inconsistent with economy and certain to be degraded in the process of cheap reproduction. It is true that all styles are open the same reproach and it is not reasonable to appraise any era by its worst expressions. The o1a is, simplicity of Greek and Roman art tends to give prominence to unworthy imitations when comparison is made. It is easier to counterfeit the ornate than the gems of stately art. That is why " sham " Empire reproductions are so often in bad taste and of unworthy workmanship.

The influence of David, the artist, during the Directoire and Empire periods must not be overlooked. His genius was a potent factor in many ways in the work of adaptation, or perhaps we may say of creating the Empire Style for some of his efforts are more than modified copies of the classical. Under Napoleon he found sufficient recognition, and his official position gave him the opportunity to stamp his individuality upon the productions of his day.

It is unlikely that anything like a modern revival of the Empire style in early American colonial furniture will take place. Despite the justly enduring popularity of certain types and pieces, the resuscitation of the style as a whole is improbable. Modern tastes go not that way.

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