In time, British porcelain was so skilled and attractive that special protective barriers had to be raised, to protect against British imports and to protect French workers against British embargoes. And not just porcelain. French industries were supported by a system of government foundations, such as the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry. Factories creating luxury goods, including textiles, goldware, clocks etc did very well out of the system.
Now we come to the new century. The Consular period (1799-1803) in France began in 1799 when the Directory was overthrown in a bloodless coup and replaced by three consuls, including Napoleon. After the coup, Napoleon was named First Consul for life and in 1804 Napoleon crowned himself Emperor. The period of his reign as Emperor is known as the Empire period (1804-1815).
Matthew Martin (Gallery Magazine, Melbourne, September 2012) wrote that the revival of luxury design industries in France helped create a new visual language that was rich with symbolism. I will quote from his excellent article and then specify where my opinion is different.
When Napoleon came to power as First Consul in 1799, much of French industry was in dire disarray, the victim of years of foreign conflict and political instability during the Revolution. The luxury industries that had made Paris Europe’s fashion capital during the C18th had virtually collapsed. Napoleon made the revival of these industries a key part of his programme to establish France’s European pre-eminence in all fields; he gave substantial state commissions to local furniture makers, silk weavers, goldsmiths and porcelain designers.
This renewed patronage of French industry was accompanied by a new visual language. French art and design of the Napoleonic era were distinguished by their active role promoting a post-Revolutionary vision of society. The visual arts of the Consular and Empire periods were rich in symbolism, articulating the political and social values promulgated by the new regime.
Enlightenment artists adopted a clear and rational approach to designing for the new world that was taking shape in France under Napoleon. Artists railed against the use of meaningless ornament; they declared that every ornamental motif had to serve some rational purpose, relevant to the function of the object that it adorned, and that the ornament should not obscure the object’s intended function. Here we may detect the first steps on the path to C20th functionalist modernism.
from Napoleon's Headquarters service
The works and their decoration articulated a vision of Empire with France at its centre and the Emperor Napoleon as the living embodiment of the French nation’s imperial destiny. During this era, art and design were turned to the service of state ideology.
Although many luxury goods manufacturers failed during the Revolution, some managed to negotiate the turmoil of the 1790s to experience revival under Napoleon’s rule e.g the Jacobs family of furniture makers. They and other designers looked to Vivant Denon’s publication of his drawings of Egyptian antiquities. Napoleon must have loved his years in Egypt because, in the wake of his successful 1798-1801 campaign there, the art and architecture of ancient Egypt become a significant influence on furniture design. At least in the years up to 1815.
The Sevres porcelain factory also drew on Vivant Denon’s drawings to produce some of its best productions, in the Egyptian taste. Sevres painted the porcelain pieces with fanciful hieroglyphs and a wide range of panoramic views of Egypt. Their Service de l’empereur was informed by an acute historical consciousness of France in relation to the classical world. The presence in Paris of ancient art treasures seized from across Europe was material proof of France’s military, political and cultural pre-eminence.
Emperor Napoleon commissioned a Sevres porcelain service (see photo below) and presented it to Prince William of Prussia in 1808. Each piece of the set was decorated with at least one scene derived from Jean de la Fontaine's Fables. In this way, the French Empire demonstrated its ability to equal the achievements of the ancients.
I agree that the Consulate and Empire era (1799-1815) was definitely a time of renewal for the luxury industries that had suffered so badly during and after the Revolution. Luxury was again welcomed!! So Napoleon commissioned new interiors, to stamp his character on the many Imperial palaces and to create work for France’s luxury industries.
And I warmly agree with Martin’s notion of a new visual image, rich in symbolism, that promoted and reflected state ideology. The language of design definitely did come from the classical world i.e the ancient civilisations of Greece, Rome and Egypt. Even more specifically, Emperor Napoleon was personally at the centre of France’s imperial destiny.
Sevres porcelain, 1807
with Jean de la Fontaine's Fables.
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Just because the decoration used was often symbolic, it does not mean it was not decorative. Egyptian palm trees, camels, laurel wreaths and sculpted lion heads were found in profusion. And just because Napoleonic furniture was enriched by the use of elegantly restrained mahogany and refined inlays of ebony and pewter, there was no ideological connection to C20th functionalist modernism. Not even a glimpse of it.