26 July 2016

Design in Napoleon's Consular and Empire periods (1799-1815)

As early as 1740, the Vincennes manufactory was created with the backing of King Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. Then in 1756 the Vincennes factory moved to Sèvres and was soon given a royal warrant of appointment. All of the artistic directors of the Vincennes-Sevres porcelain seemed to be both artistically creative and commercially successful.

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.

Sevres porcelain
from Napoleon's Headquarters service
 Fondation Napoléon

The artists saw their task to be the revival of the timeless truths of the classical world, found in the ancient civilisations of Greece, Rome and Egypt. The motifs selected to decorate objects in the Con­sular and Empire era drew upon military imagery and mythological subjects. They created images appropriate to a society that saw its mission as the liberation of Europe from absolutism (by force of arms). This society would spread the eternal spirit of freedom of the ancients that the Revolution had successfully ignited in France.

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

But if artists really did rail against the use of meaningless ornament and required every ornamental motif to serve a rational function of the object that it adorned, they were stronger on rhetoric than on achievement. Their objects were densely decorated! The porcelain, for example, was totally encircled by repeated geometric patterns, covered with giltwork and filled with rich landscape paintings. They were the most intensely decorated porcelain pieces I have ever seen.

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.


bazza said...

Once again, a fascinating article. You must be kept very busy writing this Blog! While reading this I kept thinking there was a pre-echo of Nazi Germany with art being seen as a tool of propaganda. I love the way that, despite their remit, the porcelain producers were able to turn out real gems.
I am also reminded of the way in which l'académie française tried (and still tries) to keep English out of the French language.

Pat said...

How did the Emperor run Europe and have time to ensure the decorative arts were beautiful?

Hels said...


I use my lecture notes as the basis of blog articles :) It saves hours of writing new material AND it gets my material out to a wider audience than my lectures can.

Yes indeed re Nazi Germany, but tools of propaganda have been used by every regime since the year dot. Just think of King Phillip II of Spain, commissioner and patron of the arts. Or King Louis XIV of France, style setter extraordinaire. I think the difference was that Phillip and Louis set the taste for themselves, their courts and churches. Napoleon's taste was seen everywhere.

Hels said...


the Emperor really WAS busy running Europe. But the works, and their art and design, were inspired by Napoleon, not created or supervised by him. The decorative art industries that made Paris so important were completed by families and factories that were either funded by the government or patronised by it. Any luxury business that did not display the Emperor Napoleon as the living embodiment of France's imperial destiny would have been bankrupt within a short time.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The decoration and gilding on this china gives a hint at the elaboration about to come in the Victoria era, but the superb quality and tiny bit of classical restraint shows these wares at their best.

Hels said...


I agree 100%. The Sevres porcelain factory (and others) created were of superb quality, both in the creation of the porcelain and the artist's work on top. I only have two issues that sound even the slightest bit critical:

1. What was Napoleon doing, creating art industries as important parts of HIS programme to establish France’s European pre-eminence in Europe and to establish Emperor Napoleon as _personally_ at the centre of France’s imperial destiny.

2. Sevres was not Bauhaus. Did Napoleonic artists really argue against the use of ornamentation for its own sake?