Let’s say you’re an aspiring young despot. Although you’re Italian, you’ve just helped fight the French Revolution—sweeping those bothersome monarchs out of your path to glory. You’ve impressed your new countrymen with your military savvy and ruthlessness. And, after all, someone does need to lead the country. What to do. What to do. “French Emperor” sounds great! Such was the quandary (and career path) of one Napoleone di Buonaparte.
Up next: once he had crowned himself (please see the Jacques-Louis David painting), he needed a signature style to mark his reign. Something impressive. Something handsome. And, most of all, something reeking of legitimacy. Hmmm…Ancient Rome…Imperial Rome!
The Empire style (pronounced Ahhm-peer) covered the first 25 years (or so) of the Nineteenth Century—coincidental with Napoleon’s reign. It was a bold, serious, imperious, and very handsome look which idealized the style of ancient Roman (and Greek) architecture, furniture, decorative arts and clothing. But Empire period artisans did not merely lift the ancient style directly. They re-interpreted and dramatized it—with much theatricality—which sent a powerful message of France’s (and Napoleon’s) taste, lineage, and suitability to govern the world.
While the French were creating Empire Style, other parts of the world had simultaneous Neo-Classical movements: Germans and Austrians had their Biedermeier, the English had Regency, and Americans had Federal Style. About 100 years later, in the 1910’s and 1920’s, there was an Empire Revival in the United States—a much-slimmed-down re-interpretation of the original French movement.
The Bohemian crystal liquor service, pictured above, is inspired by the serious and handsome Empire movement 120 years before it. It was made in what is now the Czech Republic—long a center of excellence in glassmaking.