The First Empire

THE only thing to be expected of furniture after the great Napoleon came to his power was that it should develop itself into what is known as the style of the First Empire, which, although for purposes of convenience we speak of it as a style, is altogether so mistaken an affectation, so hybrid a birth, that it has scarcely so much right to the title as had the Louis Seize. Thus, when we hear an article of the furniture and interior decoration of the First Empire declared to be in pure or impure style, it seems as laughable a confusion of terms as if one should speak of the pure mongrel.

This fashion is sometimes known as the NeOrGrecj but if Grecian severity, and the tenderness toward the forms of the ancient republics and the popular rights they granted, had inspired any of the ideas of the recent past in art and fashion, the Napoleonic ideas were tainted by Roman grandeur and its imperial appanage ; partly, perhaps, through the character of the Classic that had prevailed in France both in the early Renaissance and the Quatorze periods, which was borrowed in one case from the florid and in the other from the grandiose Roman schools, rather than at all from the serene and stately Doric, and from whose influence it was not easy entirely to escape. Indeed, some beautiful tables, ornamented with metal mounts after the designs of Cauvet, whose patron was the late king's brother, and made for the pleasure-house of the queen at the Petit Trianon, were sufficiently in style to adorn the Palace of St. Cloud in the Emperoc's day. And, moreover, the new Ciesar—with whom, in spite of the real greatness wrapped out of sight by his cloak of theatrical display, the world was always en scene — could hardly forget the old one; and whether or not he desired to restore art to the place it held before Alexander, the other great general of the world, had debased it by the introduction of such Oriental luxury, after his conquest of Asia, that the name of a Greek became synonymous with extravagant sensualism and the total degradation of art, yet he succeeded only in making the style of the First Empire something tarnished by Roman reproduction in its inheritance, and administered to its ruin by a vicious French fancy.

The Revolution had thrown out of France most of those who were able to be purchasers, and discriminating purchasers, of tine furniture, and there had been no serious attempt for some years at any artistic raan-^^^ ufacture. All that had occurred in this

Mr ^^^ line was the rifling of the palaces of the old order to dress out the palaces of the new. When the Empire became a fact, and its revenues were well in hand to assist its pageantry, attention was paid to this subject of household decoration, and the Greek became the countersign —the Greek known in ancient Rome. It was perhaps felt that the forms of art to accompany the last empire, with all its gigantic conquests and pride, must be those which had accompanied ¡1% ■ vaster empire when its chains

FlIbt Empire p*yche-gla88' The First Empire n&yw accomplish ed its aim of setting before us the antique at its height of graceful and perfect simplicity. The Grecian chairs which in one of its forms is, for charm-ing outline and lightness, absolute fflJr perfection, seemed a tame affair to || wffiS

the later artificers; they either made fcj B ¡Hg it bald by their toning down, or else __ ^

rendered it unrecognizable with ffiftMB

nament. In either event their want 3T

of taste was only equalled by their M - ¿J^^p^^^^^JL^B ignorance. If they did not put shoes —^^ -.y^j^B •

upon the feet of their winged angels, ||| fv ^ ■ as some modern painters do, they arranged Helen's hair as a French hair- iff J*^ T dresser would arrange it, gave a Pa- rlj risian cut to peplum and chlamys, V put implements of the present into the hands of the past, mixed the de-tails of their ornament inextricably, Flr8t Eraplre scattered the Athenian bees broadcast, and seemed to think the sacrifice to the Grecian spirit was complete by oblations of nudity, unaware that the perfect beauty and grace of the ancient nude was in itself a garment.

The whole contour of furniture and its decoration, in the attempt to represent the antique, was as conspicuously inexact as the short-waisted gown and ruff of Josephine were in representing the lovely dress of Aspasia and Rhodope. Vague ideas without precise information moved the whole period, and designers did not think it necessary to go farther for their instruction than to the dry bones and the unreal art of the painter David. Chairs and tables thought their whole duty as chairs and tables was done when they presented an antique simulation, and were satisfied with themselves if they had concealed their own structure behind the bass-relief belonging to an ancient vase or the frieze of a temple— bass-relief neither well understood nor rightly repeated, slenderness of knowledge being assisted in the result by poverty of imagination. The style, with the exception of a few mechanical points, such, for instance, as the fine alabaster finish it gave to wood when desired —a practice as legitimate as that of ebonizing—possesses no claims upon favor. For although the largest freedom of choice is to be allowed, yet in certain matters taste is arbitrary: if, thaUs, a thing assumes to be classic, good taste requires that it shall be pure classic, and not the classic of a petit maitre.

As a tendency toward the style already existed in the days of the Directory, although in a severer shape, its growth cannot be considered as altogether a tribute to the emperor or an

emanation from his pride.

Doubtless many of its peculiarities were formed by rumor of those ancient treasures that were opened to general knowledge by the late campaigns and victories; and, for the rest, it was probably still aware of that influence which had been exerted upon the art of the previous period by the unearthing of Pompeii and Herculaneum in its gradual progress. Yet although the marvels of the buried cities, in all their extravagant beauty, were carried to the museums of Naples and Portici, and open to all the world, they were too florid to be of the same use that they had been in the Louis Seize, and seem never to have commanded any strict study from the designers of the Empire. They were not the noblest examples of art themselves, to be sure; Asiatic sensuality had corrupted art at its fountain-head, and we are still suffering from the poison it instilled; but they were of a wondrous loveliness, and possessed at least some character—a thing not belonging to the First Empire.

The fashion of the First Empire, on the whole, in spite of much inevitable beauty that could not altogether fall short in such a revival, was a sham scholarship and a hollow imitation of the nobility and of the pageantry of the past—glory calling unto glory. If the glory had chosen to de-. velop a style for itself, something of infinitely better worth might have been reached; as it is, with its stiff ugliness and ancient pretensions, with its alabaster and imitative finish of common articles, with the fasces of the lictor bound at every angle, its unfailing pediments and metopes, coupled with details at which Pericles might have laughed, it reminds one of the hero who undertook to revive the past ages on his ancestral estate:

" So all that the old dukes had been without knowing it, This duke would fain know he was without being it;

'Twas not for the joy's self, but the joy of his showing it, Nor for the pride's self, but the pride of our seeing it"

Of course there was a great deal of splendor in connection with every article; inlay, and gilding, marquetry, and metal mounts, had already reached a point where, as mere work, they could go no farther, while carving of an exquisite nicety had renewed itself under the last regime. The whole brilliant array of the thing had an imperial guise of its own, but one in no way befitting the greatness of the period or the wonderful genius of the man who shaped that period to his own ends.

Poor as the style was, the Second Empire would not, perhaps, have felt that it was reviving its ancestral rights if it had not revived this bastard form of art with them. It mingled, however, so many Cupids and ribbons and unessential elements with it that it neither deserved nor received any wide countenance or continuation.

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