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Excerpt from: Empire


The end of the eighteenth century was a tumultuous and remarkably rich period that laid the foundations of modern times. In the course of the century the philosophy of Enlightenment had opened minds to realities veiled until then, and it had awakened hopes of social and political change in many lands. In France this new consciousness culminated in a major cultural rupture, the Revolution. The fall of the Bastille in 1789 and the death of Louis XVI in 1793 marked the end of a monarchy that had shaped France, its society, and its economy for ten centuries.

Revolutions do not immediately find a language to express the social order they are striving to establish. While their participants want to herald the advent of a new era, they can do so only with inherited words and modes. Hence there was no real break between the styles and art forms that characterized the reign of Louis XVI and those of the Revolution or the subsequent Directoire, Consulat, and Empire. Gradually evolving over the course of these years, the Empire style was a natural development of the neoclassical art born in the preceding decades, which explains why Empire also includes styles that predate the coronation of Napoleon.

The forms and decorative vocabulary of the Empire style began to take shape about 1798, a little before the Consulat, and its spirit slowly changed after the French Empire was established in 1804. Despite a strong connection to its stylistic predecessors, the Empire style was highly influenced by the personality of one man. From the time he was a consul, Napoleon Bonaparte had been preoccupied with the expansion of the French economy, and this concern drove his desire to dominate European countries and control their trade. Once in power, he also wished to give a grandeur and splendor to his reign, a purpose best served by the arts. Thus the short years of his rule were a period of extraordinary development for arts and crafts in France and in the countries he controlled.

When Napoleon came to power he found a country that had been torn apart by civil war and lay in partial ruin. He also inherited royal residences that had been stripped bare by the Revolution. In his ten years as emperor he not only refurbished palaces and châteaux throughout France and Europe but also gave France one of its most superb collections of decorative arts. To accomplish this he provided massive help to workshops and nascent industries, encouraged and publicized technical inventions, and instituted schools, competitions, and prizes. No one since Louis XIVs minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert had been so concerned with the economic status of France and the international image of its arts and crafts. Just as Napoleon knew how to surround himself with the best political and military counselors, so too did he call some of the best artists in Europe to his service.

The expansion of the French Empire as well as the speed with which prints were distributed and works exported account for the remarkable diffusion of this style-a style that answered the taste for luxury of the new middle classes.

The age of Empire was one of conquering armies and flamboyant cavaliers, progressive legislators and meticulous administrators, refined architects and sophisticated craftsmen. This was a world that admired and followed the masculine models of ancient Rome, a fascination reflected in Empire interiors and furniture. After the Consulat, as the fantasy and delicacy of the eighteenth century waned, court etiquette stiffened, decoration became more dignified and ponderous, and the graceful allegories of early neoclassicism became emblems of the new classes power and wealth.

Although the age of Empire was dominated by men, both politically and aesthetically, the women of the period played an important political and intellectual role, particularly with their influential salons. They also formed a link between the former aristocracy and the new society. Through their commissions they supported the development of French crafts and luxury industries, and theirs was a very different, less formal sensibility. Empress Josephine showed an interest in nature that infused what was an imposing, architectural style with charm and delicacy. And she encouraged a romantic taste for the Middle Ages, a style that was to supplant the Empire.

The Napoleonic era was a heroic and tragic time, as the victories of a remarkable strategist and his formidable army spread French hegemony over most of the Continent. The spectacular expansion of French culture marked the political or social structure and the arts of entire nations. And the collapse of the colossal Empire in 1815 ended an epic that was to inspire endless dreams of glory among the following generations.

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