“Empire” Furniture Isn’t Always Empire Furniture
I interrupt this blog that occasionally masquerades as something scholarly and amounts to not much more than Victorian eye-candy and tabloid-style cabinetmaker worship to discuss the use of “Empire” to describe more than the period technically defines. Too many of us do it (myself included until recently) and I know that many of us care enough to classify properly.
I’ve invited Hollie Davis of the duo from the popular Maine Antiques Digest column, “The Young Collector” and their newly launched personal blog of the same name to help lay out the background on this period. I’ve been reading the column she has been doing with her husband, Andrew Richmond, for some time and am excited to work with her now and in future.
If you do a search in many readily-accessible auction results websites for “Empire” you will always get an overly steady stream of furniture that is being classified as “Empire” though they actually fit into the “Late Classical” boundaries.
It appears that over time, Late Classical’s proximity to Empire has apparently sucked it into that classification vortex. Hollie will clear this up for us below and pay special attention to the Late Classical section.
Occasionally on Rare Victorian, we’ve dipped out of the Victorian era into the Classical era of American furniture, and some clarification on the period is probably warranted. The most important concept is that the Classical era was really composed of three separate and very distinct phases of fashion – Neoclassical (1790s to 1820s), Empire (1820s to 1840s) and Late Classical (1830s to 1850s). They may all be under the same umbrella due to Greco-Roman inspiration, but we’re talking about three unique styles. To complicate matters, the time periods vary, depending on whether one is discussing French or American Neoclassicism (and even urban American Neoclassicism versus rural American Neoclassicism), and the careers of the artisans closely associated with the period – Phyfe, Lannuier, McIntire, etc. – frequently overlap parts of all three phases.
Neoclassicism kicked off the Classical era and has, as expected, very solid roots. The movement came about, as most movements do, in response to the proceeding eras – in this case, as a direct response to the ostentatious realms of Baroque and Rococo. It is, as some scholars have observed, two-dimensional in a sense. Aside from some subtle relief carving or the reeding of columns, both clear nods to Classical antecedents, virtually all of the decoration is flat. Neoclassicism aligns closely with the clean lines of what we know as the Federal period, the age of Sheraton and Hepplewhite in England and Samuel McIntire and Duncan Phyfe in America.
With delicate tapered legs and classical design motifs such as urns and shields, the furniture of this period draws it ornamentation from rich upholstery, inlay and hand-painted gilt designs.
A classical example of a Federal chair (sold at Skinner’s in 2007) – note the shield back, subtle carvings and inlaid fan.
The second phase of the Classical era, Empire, also originated in France, as did most things fashionable at the time. Empire style arrived in the United States in the first decade of the 1800s, perhaps due in large part to the designs of Charles-Honoré Lannuier, a French cabinetmaker who left France during the unrest created by the rising Napoleonic Empire. This is where the politics of furniture become interesting, and one wonders how intentional the ties to the Greco-Roman tradition were; when seeking legitimacy for your new government, aligning yourself with the most respected and idealized cultures in history is probably a smart move! And Empire furniture – true Empire furniture – leaves no doubts as to its affiliations. Of the three phases of the Classical era, Empire is the most figural and the most anthropomorphic; you’ll find caryatids and winged figures serving as supports, acanthus leaves and anthemions atop carved columns, and all of it resting on the paw feet of a mythical creature.
A Duncan Phyfe Empire table (New Orleans Auctions, 2007), complete with winged figures, carved columns, gilding and paw feet.
Ironically, Empire’s appeal was also Empire’s downfall. The elaborate carving that typifies Empire style was time-consuming and unique to each piece. Manufacture was slow, at least slower, and expensive. When you factor in a relatively short period of time in vogue, it’s little wonder that collectors value Empire furniture – there simply wasn’t that much true Empire furniture produced!
Two factors are primarily responsible for the end of Empire and the rise of Late Classical furniture. First, as mentioned, carving Empire furniture was a lengthy, pricey process, and with the increased use of the band saw in the early 19th century, furniture production began the Industrial Revolution transition from small shops to factory settings. Band saws made heaper production possible, but they also required a different style to be truly effective.
Second, the Napoleonic Empire collapsed in 1814, and the Bourbon monarchy was restored to the throne. After the French Revolution and Napoleon’s betrayal of the French commoners, the monarchy needed to reject the flashy gilding and elaborate handwork of the Neoclassical and Empire periods, seeking instead the relatively simplicity of what became Late Classical style.
Late Classical (sometimes referred to as “pillar and scroll”) is, in many ways, the least elaborate of the Classical Era’s phases. It relies on the sheer presence and drama of wood; large unbroken sections of veneer along with hefty curving legs and large simple columns that speak of classical forms only in their lines. The lines are still there, but most of the “window-dressing” has been stripped away; you’ll see the basic elements of cyma curves, columns, and pillars.
This isn’t really just an issue of semantics: Empire and Late Classical furniture pieces are not only vastly different in appearance, but in production methods. They are ultimately on opposite sides of a great divide in antiques with some of the last handcrafted pieces on one side and the beginnings of Industrial Revolution’s mass-produced furniture on the other.
More on this topic can be found in the forum post here.