“Empire” Furniture Isn’t Always Empire Furniture

by Hollie on June 13, 2009

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.


Introduction

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

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.

federal_chair_shield

A classical example of a Federal chair (sold at Skinner’s in 2007) – note the shield back, subtle carvings and inlaid fan.

Empire

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.

duncan-phyfe-empire-table

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

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.

late-classical-table
A Late Classical table (Cowan’s, 2009) – note the broad heavy scrolls and curves and the wide expanses of undecorated veneer.

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.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

English Classics June 13, 2009 at 10:52 am

Yes, the politics of style was fascinating in those days. I read somewhere that during Napoleon’s reign togas briefly became fashionable. It’s easy take classical design for granted until you realize just how serious they were about it all.

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Paul Tucker June 13, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Thanks for the very interesting and enlightening scholarly handle on Empire design.

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zeke June 13, 2009 at 7:12 pm

Very cool post and I feel like i learned a lot from it, many thanks. I always like to lump “Empire” into Victorian furniture because so much of it was present in the houses where people bought the new Victorian styles. It goes so well with most Victorian furnishings and i’m sure a lot of us “RV” folks have at least one Empire piece.

Any thoughts on the later empire revival furniture that appeared at the end of the Victorian era, a lot of of them in oak, but pillar and scroll form for the most part?

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Canadian maple June 13, 2009 at 10:03 pm

The American late classical style is the equivalent of the Biedermeier style in Germany, the Netherlands and Northern Europe. In England this style is called William IV or late Regency. In France it is called Louis Phillipe. When scholars began to study furniture the worked within the boundaries of their respective countries and with not a small measure of nationalistic spirit. On the English, French, Germans and American gave their version of the international late classical style it own name. But it is just one style done a little differently in each country.

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Charles June 13, 2009 at 11:37 pm

This was and INCREDIBLY enlightening article. Thanks to RV for putting this up. This has cleared up numerous misconceptions and confusion that I have had over these periods for years. I can now look at furniture from this period with a new appreciation and understanding. I see quite a bit of furniture in the deep south that is just lumped together at auctions and shops as “empire and even called Federal”, but most of it I now realize is Late Classical or Empire Revival. Now I know the difference! Thanks RV!!

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monkecmonkedo June 15, 2009 at 11:18 pm

The Neal Auction Summer Estates Catalogue is online and I now note their proper use of Late Classical. Amazing how I never noticed it before. Thanks Hollie and RV!

http://www.nealauction.com/indexnet.html

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james conrad June 16, 2009 at 4:25 am

Yeah, very good analysis of these styles. I would note that while early empire can be pricey, late clasical is a very good buy & affordable these days.

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james conrad June 16, 2009 at 4:29 am

I almost forgot, welcome to the board Hollie!!!

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hollie June 16, 2009 at 11:53 am

Thanks for the warm welcome! It is one of those things that you see everywhere once you begin to notice it, isn’t it? And James, you are so right – Late Classical is so very affordable right now, and personally, I think its dramatic but understated qualities make it a good fit for just about any home. It’s certainly not often “rare Victorian,” but it has its perks!

I’ll have to do a little looking into the Empire Revival/Second Empire. My gut instinct is that the style still lent itself to mass production, and I think, if my European history courses serve me well, that we can thank France for the second revival as well. Napoleon III (Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew) staged a coup in 1851 and set about recreating the Napoleonic Empire – what we now know as the Second French Empire. Reviving the Empire style would certainly have been a part of that nationalistic effort, and with the normal delay in the adoption of fashions, would have been timed just about right to arrive in America as the Empire Revival.

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RareVictorian June 16, 2009 at 11:22 pm

Glad everyone liked Hollie’s article. I had a feeling this era had to get cleared up.

monkecmonkedo – I noticed that same thing about the Neal Auction.

Personally, I am holding out for a nice Philadelphia Anthony Quervelle piece. I’ve been studying his forms so that I can snag one someday that isn’t identified as such. I believe the table I saw at the Antiques Roadshow is possibly by him.

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Donna M. Rautenstrauch November 22, 2009 at 11:44 pm

It was refreshing to come across this information.
I now know what I had been looking at in so many local estate sales is actually Late Classical and not Empire.

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Stacie Wilcox October 10, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Obviously I am late to this conversation. I found it while doing a search on empire furniture. I have a sideboard that I recently acquired with neo-classical carvings, flame mahogany veneers, and glass knobs. One “expert” identified it as late empire, though I have had other’s say that it looks like a 1920s revival piece. I was curious about Quervelle’s work, as this piece has heavy lion paw feet, and the only thing that I DO know about it is that it came from Philadelphia. Ay, such confusion! Great article though, great clarification around this period!

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