An Empire's Reach

Portrait of Bonaparte by Antoine Gros- 1802,   L’impératrice Joséphine by Jacques Louis David.

Josephine de Beauharnais met Napoleon Bonaparte when she was 32 and he was 26. She was a widowed mother of two and had been interned for four months following her former husband’s death by guillotine. For his involvement with counter-revolutionaries, Alexandre de Beauharnais was arrested and be-headed during the Reign of Terror. It was thereafter that Napoleon and Josephine’s courtship was met with disapproval and suspicion from his family. Josephine de Beauharnais was born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, to wealthy Creole plantation owners in Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique. Napoleon Bonaparte was from a modest family of flagging aristocracy. Born in Corsica, a newly owned French region in the Mediterranean, the young Napoleon changed his name from Napoleone di Buonaparte to the more French Napoleon Bonaparte.  Perhaps that is why both Josephine and Napoleon wanted to firm up their hold on French culture. While Napoleon was off to war, Josephine was left to make a home for them. She acquired the estate of Chateau Malmaison, hiring premier architects of the time, Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine to start the renovations. It was there on the 150 acre spot just west of Paris, the French Empire style was hatched. The design was heavily influenced by Imperial Rome and used as a kind of architectural propaganda to reflect a liberated and enlightened France. Empire proselytized an egalitarian almost populist message; every flourish should command an austere orderliness and balance to the world.

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Empress Josephine’s bedroom at Malmaison, Closeup of Josephine’s bed- Photos by Getty Images

We see here Empress Josephine’s bedroom outfitted in all of the French Empire’s gilded glory.  The ancient world of Greece and Rome again, an ever present guide for the style’s impressive iconography.

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Closeup of Josephine from Sacre de l’empereur Napoleon et couronnement de l’imperatrice Josephine by Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon I by Anne Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson, Napoleon’s farewell to Josephine

Napoleon and Josephine married March 9th in 1796.  Napoleon’s coronation wasn’t officiated until December 2, 1804 and after crowning himself, he then crowned Josephine declaring her Empress of France. Though the relationship seemed at first to be a love between twin flames, it devolved; both parties guilty of engaging in multiple affairs. However, It wasn’t infidelity that would kill the marriage, it was Josephine’s painful inability to bear Napoleon any children. It would be the final undoing. The success of securing a lineage was of paramount importance. Napoleon, although still in love with Josephine, had a responsibility to the French. He asked for a divorce on November 30, 1809; the ceremony took place on January 10, 1810. Napoleon would much later go on to lose the war of the sixth coalition and be exiled. His last words were recorded as being, “France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Josephine.”

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Photo of Napoleon’s bedroom at Malmaison, Circa 1805- Bed by Jacob-Desmalter, Italian Neoclassical parcel-gilt and part-ebonized carved armchairs, Dressing Table of Joséphine

Through the years French Empire style has survived on in a range of different incarnations, the many variants of which reveal corresponding regional attitudes and of course access or lack thereof, to needed materials. Seen here in its infancy at Chateau de Malmaison, the woodwork is heavily adorned in what is called ormolu. Ormolu is the name for all the elaborate gold ornamentation you see; it was the gilding technique of the era and used in the finer representations of French Empire style.

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Biedermeier Sofa, Biedermeier Commode, A Biedermeier Burlwood Chest

Biedermeier was a German born interpretation of French Empire. This variant was characterized as a more minimalist version of Empire and while mahogany was used almost exclusively in original French Empire furniture In Biedermeier style they used whatever wood they had on hand, traditionally cherry, ash or oak wood.

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Designer Collins Interiors, Designer Roberto Migotto

Seen above are some examples of Biedermeier furniture in a modern application.

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Planning the Grand Tour by Emil Brack, Regency Burl Round Center Table,  Regency Convex Mirror, Armchair with a lyre-carved back splat. Regency Rosewood Partial Gilt Sofa

Regency is known as the English answer to the French Empire style. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the wars were over and there was a period of economic prosperity.  The theme here is that same echo of neo-classicism and balance.  We see a golden Roman eagle perched centerfold at the mirror’s crest and the Grecian lyre is featured throughout at the bases of tables and the backs of the chairs. Again, the use of ormolu was used but only in the wealthiest of households.
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American Federal Chest of Drawers, Federal Convex Mirror with Girandola Candles Arms, Duncan Phyfe armchair, American Federal Mahogany Marble top console, American Federal Mahogany sofa

American Federal style was the states equivalent to French Empire. We can see each countries’ take of the same philosophical tenants of neo-classicism and structure. Balance and egalitarianism were the buzzwords of the time.

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Designer David G. Fuller, Jayne Design Studio Via-Architectural Digest

Although the 1st French Empire period started in France with Napoleon, the philosophy and architectural style was latched onto and its influence reverberated globally. There have always been revivals of every architectural period and Empire is no different.  So if the 1st Empire was Napoleon I from 1804-1815, then the 2nd French Empire was during the rule of Napoleon III from 1852 to 1870, but it’s a worth noting that there are many off shoots. We even see its survival in Greek revival elements here in south Louisiana.  At this point, everything under the sun is reverential and there is a certain comfort in that, I hope.

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Stacy Gauthier, Via- Savy home

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Veranda Magazine -Designer Tara Shaw, Hawker Library Bergere

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1.French 19th Century Painted Trumeau$1,295.00, 2.Pair of French 19th Century Brass Ormolu Lamps $2,695.00, 3.French 19th Century Empire Mahogany Dressing Table $3,995.00, 4. French 19th Century Empire Mahogany Dining Table $4,995.00

an empire's reach

1.French 19th Century Bibliotheque by CH. Jeanselme $15,500.00, 2. French 19th Century Painted and Gold Gilt Empire Trumeau$4,250.00, 3.French 19th Century Gold Gilt Mirror with Urn $5,950.00, 4.French 19th Century Louis XVI Bronze Mantle Clock $4,995.00, 5.French 19th Century Walnut Empire Buffet $6,995.00
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Written by Fireside Antiques