The Empire Style

Art under Napoleon

The Empire style refers to art created under the rule of Napoleon that was intended to idealize the French Empire.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the emphasis Napoleon placed on nationalism when supporting the arts

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Empire style developed and elaborated the Directoire style of the immediately preceding period, which aimed at a simpler evocation of the virtues of the Ancient Roman Republic.
  • The style was predominantly propagandistic, intended to idealize Napoleon’s French state. Inspiration for architectural designs drew heavily on symbols and ornaments borrowed from the ancient Greek and Roman empires. Buildings typically had simple timber frames and box-like constructions, veneered in expensive mahogany that was imported from the newly-acquired colonies.
  • In Napoleonic painting, themes often revolved around the military and glorifying Napoleon’s campaigns. Battle paintings were increasingly produced for large public buildings and grew larger than ever before.

Key Terms

  • Neoclassicism: Neoclassicism is the name given to Western movements in the decorative and visual arts, literature, theater, music, and architecture that draw inspiration from the “classical” art and culture of Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome.

The Empire style, considered by many to be the second phase of Neoclassicism, is an early 19th century design movement in architecture, furniture, and the decorative arts which lasted until about 1830. The style originated during the rule of Napoleon I in the First French Empire and was intended to idealize Napoleon’s French state.

The Empire style developed and elaborated the Directoire style of the immediately preceding period, which aimed at a simpler but still elegant evocation of the virtues of the Ancient Roman Republic. Empire style architecture was based on aspects of the Roman Empire and its many archaeological treasures that had been rediscovered starting in the 18th century. The style was considered to have “liberated” and “enlightened” architecture just as Napoleon “liberated” the people of Europe with his Napoleonic Code. Inspiration for architectural designs drew heavily on symbols and ornaments borrowed from the ancient Greek and Roman empires. Buildings typically had simple timber frames and box-like constructions, veneered in expensive mahogany that was imported from the newly acquired colonies.

After Napoleon lost power, the Empire style continued to be in favor for many decades, with minor adaptations. The most famous Empire style structures in France are the grand neoclassical Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, Vendôme column, and La Madeleine, which were built in Paris to emulate the edifices of the Roman Empire.

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The Madeleine: Église de la Madeleine in Paris, a Temple to the Glory of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. This structure reflects the Empire style of architecture in its emulation of ancient Greco-Roman facades, especially in its extensive use of Greek columns.

In Napoleonic painting, themes often revolved around the military and the glorification of Napoleon’s campaigns. Battle paintings were increasingly produced for large public buildings and grew larger in size than ever before. Baron Gros painted mostly glorifications of Napoleon and his victories, but his 1808 painting of the Battle of Eylau does not neglect the suffering of the dead and wounded on the frozen battlefield. In contrast, Goya’s large paintings The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808 emphasized the brutality of the French forces during the Peninsular War in Spain.

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Bataille d´Aboukir, 25 juillet 1799, 1806: By Antoine-Jean Gros, representative of Empire-style painting, which depicted Napoleon on the battlefield as a conquering victor.

The Empire Style

The Empire Style reflects Napoleon’s desire to reshape France in the model of the Roman Empire.

Learning Objectives

Explain some of the attributes of the Empire style

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Empire Style, which takes its name from the First Empire period of France, manifested itself in the visual and decorative arts.
  • Major building projects undertaken in Paris in the Empire Style include the Church of the Madeleine, intended as a temple to Napoleon’s army.
  • The Vendôme Column, crafted from enemy cannons after Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, was produced in the style of Trajan’s Column in Rome.
  • Napoleon’s throne, on which he sits in a portrait by Ingres, framed the emperor’s head like a halo and contained laurel crown encircling his first initial to commemorate his victories in battle.

The Empire style, which takes its name from the First Empire overseen by Napoleon Bonaparte, is an early 19th century design movement in the decorative arts and the visual arts that flourished between 1800 and 1815 during the Consulate and the First French Empire periods. Art forms from this period reflect Napoleon’s desire to remake France in the image of the Roman Empire. The style corresponds politically to the Biedermeier style in the German-speaking lands, Federal style in the United States, and the Regency style in Britain.

La Madeleine

Architecture of the Empire style was based on elements of the Roman Empire and its many archaeological treasures, which had been rediscovered starting in the 18th century. The style was considered to have “liberated” and “enlightened” architecture just as Napoleon “liberated” the peoples of Europe with his Napoleonic Code. One example of this symbolism lies in the Église Sainte-Marie Madeleine in Paris (Church of St. Mary Magdalene). Although this building is a church, it more closely resembles a classical temple, combining elements from ancient Greece (origin of democracy and Western philosophy) and Rome (a republic turned empire). It was designed in its present form as a temple to the glory of Napoleon’s army.

Image of exterior of the temple shows the many columns.

Pierre-Alexandre Vignon. L’Église Sainte-Marie Madeleine (1807–28): This temple to Napoleon’s army combines elements from ancient Greek and Roman temples.

Vendôme Column

The Vendôme Column, located in the Place de la Vendôme in Paris, was started in 1806 at Napoleon’s direction and completed in 1810. It was modeled after Trajan’s Column, to celebrate the victory of Austerlitz. However, while Trajan’s Column was sculpted from marble, the veneer of the Vendôme Column consists of 425 spiraling bas-relief bronze plates made from cannons taken from the combined armies of Europe, according to his propaganda. A statue of Napoleon, bare-headed, crowned with laurels, and holding a sword in his right hand and a globe surmounted with a statue of Victory in his left hand, was placed atop the column.

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Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret. Vendôme Column. (1806): While Bergeret designed the column, its execution was carried out by Jean-Joseph Foucou, Louis-Simon Boizot, François Joseph Bosio, Lorenzo Bartolini, Claude Ramey, François Rude, Corbet, Clodion and Henri-Joseph Ruxthiel.

Napoleon’s Throne

Napoleon’s throne, on which he sits in a well-known portrait by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, consists of blue cushions and gilded armrests ending in ivory balls. Encircling the N on the arm of the throne is a laurel crown, a symbol of victory in Imperial Rome.

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Throne of Napoleon: The circular back, ornate decoration, and the emperor’s first initial encircled by a laurel crown combine to turn this piece of furniture into an object of propaganda.

As seen in the portrait, the circular back framed the emperor’s head like a halo or sun ray, reminiscent of a section of Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (housed in the Louvre) depicting God the Father.

The painting shows Napoleon as emperor, in the costume he wore for his coronation, seated on his throne. In his right hand he holds the sceptre of Charlemagne and in his left the hand of justice. On his head is a golden laurel wreath.

Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1806): The gilded trim of Napoleon’s throne circles the emperor’s head.