19th-Century Style


19th-Century Style:
Johan Roudy explores the main influences and styles that developed in France after the 1789 revolution

Johan Roudy explores the main influences and styles that developed in France after the 1789 revolution

The 19th century was a time of great upheaval. In France, after the Revolution in 1789, the guild system was abolished. While the political and economic situation was in turmoil, the great traditional workshops lost the monopoly of training skilled workers and manufacturing, and many disappeared as they lost the clientele of connoisseurs consisting of nobility and clergy.
This period also saw the rise of industrialism. This was a revolution in design and manufacturing techniques for the furniture makers. The first woodworking machines, such as bandsaws, planers and tenoning machines were developed.

Monument ‘1792’ celebrating Danton in Tarbes shows some French revolution symbols. Oak leaves represent civic virtue

Directoire (1789-1804)
Directoire is a transitional style between Louis XVI and Empire. The furniture structure doesn’t fundamentally change, but the geometric and rigid look tends to be lighter and more austere. For economic reasons, gilded bronze ornaments and marquetry are almost abandoned. Woodcarving does not escape this trend and become much more discreet.
Mahogany, fruit trees, beech or walnut are the more commonly used wood species. Decorative elements, especially floral and vegetal ornaments, are still inspired by the previous style. The main motifs are the palmette, animals and chimeras, geometric shapes (diamond). But ornament also reflects the political situation with emblems of the French Revolution (phrygian cap, spears, helmets, sabre, oak twig, folded hands for spirit of brotherhood…). Greco-Roman art generates a growing interest. Antique furniture is strictly reproduced according to archaeological documents or pieces excavated from Pompeii during military campaigns in Italy. Some ornaments, such as vases, urns, or mythological animals, are also inspired by this enthusiasm for antique art.

Gilt bronze mount on a XV1 revival chest of drawers

Napoleon emblems were added to the new built wings of the Palais du Louvre

Empire (1800-1815)
Napoleon Bonaparte is crowned emperor and artists and craftsmen have to serve the imperial prestige, notably to refurnish the royal residences. Directed by the emperor, the Empire style is recognisable by massive, majestic and severe furniture. The shapes are strictly rectangular with large flat surfaces and square edges without any moulding. There is little carving – the ornament is mainly made of gilt-bronze mounts, arranged in a strict spirit of geometry and symmetry.
Revolutionary emblems give way to imperial symbols (‘N’ of Napoleon, ‘I’ of Imperator, the bee, the eagle, the crown). The flora is less present than in the 18th century, but various festoon and wreath can be found (oak leaves, laurel, palm, vine, ivy, roses). The acanthus leaves look flat and stiff. To refer to the ancient Rome glory, Greco-Roman ornaments are even more used. Following the military campaign in Egypt, some elements become fashionable (sphynx, scarab, head wearing a ‘pschent’, Egyptian lotus-shaped capitals).

Restoration/Louis-Philippe (1815-1852)
After the fall of Napoleon, Louis XVIII accedes to the throne. Shapes inherited from the Empire tend to soften with some curves. The furniture is less massive and loses its stiffness. As mechanisation develops,
the quality declines little by little and furniture manufacturers start to take over cabinetmakers. Ornament is getting poorer. Inlays of amaranth and ebony or painted motifs replace the gilded bronze, simplifying  the lyre, palmette or swan designs already used in Empire style. Since the blockade of the Empire on the United Kingdom, mahogany has been more difficult to find. That’s why furniture makers get used to using bright, local woods such as ash, maple or elm. Under the reign of Louis-Philippe (1830-1848), reproductions or pastiches of past styles of furniture start to be fashionable (Gothic and Renaissance Revival). But, the effort rarely meets the spirit of the original style.

Napoleon III (1850-1890)
Napoleon III or Second Empire style will last until the end of the century. This prosperous period brings back ornamentation in architecture as much as in furniture. It draws its inspiration from all the previous styles, from Gothic to Louis XVI, and sometimes mix them for the best or the worst. Some high-quality copies of Louis XV and Louis XVI furniture are made. Left behind for 40 years, gilded bronze and marquetry are also used again. More often, the old styles are imitated and pastiched. At the same time, there is a fashion for the exotic, Indian and African Art. African figures are sculpted as table feet or torchère lamps likely cohabiting with a Gothic or Renaissance Revival piece. Carving imitates rope or bamboo on some chairs and small furniture. This eclectic, sometimes exuberant, ornamentation defines the characteristic originality of this style.

On this building you can see typical Romanesque arches and columns are decorated with 17th-century style dolphins and covered with a Gothic inspired pattern of thistle leaves


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