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The Directoire style, which takes its name from the Directory, the government of the Directors that lasted four years, 1795-99, is not a finished and independent style in itself, but a transitional style, which formed a connecting link between the Louis XVI and Empire styles. In a word, it is the Louis XVI ending and the Empire beginning.


The movement towards a closer imitation of the antique, which ultimately triumphed in the style of the First Empire, had its inception under Louis XVI. The Revolution of 1789 did not effect any rapid change in furniture fashion, but it helped and hurried the movement in every way, because it was going exactly in the direction required to satisfy the tastes of the revolutionary current, which ardently admired the ancient republics.

Many pieces identifed with the Directoire style carry on the direct tradition of Louis XVI classicism treated with greater severity. At this time, when the taste for allegories was rampant, revolutionary emblems are met with again and again not only on furniture but also on mural decoration and textiles. These include Phrygian caps (liberty), spirit levels (equality), clasped hands (fraternity), pikes (freedom of man), triangles with an eye in the middle (reason), the three orders of the nation or the cross (clergy), sword (nobility), and spade topped by a Phrygian cap (third estate), etc.

Furniture had to be the copy exactly from pieces that the excavations of Pompeii had disclosed or from representations on antique vase paintings or bas-reliefs.

David, the famous painter, did more than anyone else to establish this new taste. He designed a group of pieces, more or less exact copies of Greco-Roman models, and gave the order to Jacob to make them in 1789 or 1790. Among these well-known pieces are mahogany chairs of ancient curule form with X-shaped supports, chairs inspired by the Grecian klismos, the graceful daybed with its pure lines on which David depicted Madame Récamier.

The Revolution brought in its wake the suppression of the craft guilds, which were dissolved in 1791. This meant that the rules and regulations by which the trade guilds had governed the thorough training of the craftsmen, their long apprenticeship and compagnonnage, were abolished and that complete freedom of production was permitted in all of the crafts. Luxury arts, such as furniture making, began to decline starting with this reform, except for the deluxe furniture made under the First Empire, and in any case produced by craftsmen trained in the great traditions built up with such care by Louis XIV and his two successors under the craft guild system.

The most famous interior designs of the last years of the Republic belonged to Madame Récamier, the designs for its furnishings having been chiefly under the guidance of Percier and Fontaine, the famous ornamentists.

Made of mahogany, chairs and daybeds, with their sweeping curves approximating very closely their Grecian prototypes, are often remarkable for their refined and archaeological approach. Other furniture of this epoch was extravagant with ornament half archaeological and half symbolic, including Roman glaives, the fulmen of Jupiter, hocked animal legs and lions’ heads.

The fashion for Egyptian ornament was inevitable after Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, in which accompanying the military staff was a staff of writers, scientists, and archaeologists. In this group was the architect and archaeologist Dominique Vivant Denon, 1747-1825, who, while in Egypt, gathered material for his book, Le Voyage dans la basse et la haute Egypte, published in 1802. This important work, notable for its descriptive writing and its detailed visual record of sphinxes and pylons, was most influential in propagating Egyptian ornament. Shortly after its publication, numerous Egyptian pieces appeared in collections of designs by Percier and Fontaine.

By the coup d’Etat of November 9, 1799, Napoleon established the Consulate and became First Consul. In the realm of art it inaugurated the reign of Napoleon, even though he did not see fit to make himself Emperor Napoleon until 1804. One of his first interests was gradually to remake a court, and he wanted to have palaces, if not built for him, at least furnished for him in a manner consonant with his achievements and his régime. For this purpose he employed Percier and Fontaine, ardent devotees of antiquity who were to do all of Napoleon’s work, to redecorate Malmaison, which Joséphine had purchased in 1798. After completing Malmaison, they redecorated Saint-Cloud, the Tuileries, the Louvre, and other palace appartments in a style expressive of this epoch imposed on France by Napoleon and his conquests. So it is under the Consulate that the learned and archaeological style of the First Empire made its debut, sprung, it almost seems, complete and finished chiefly from the heads of Percier and Fontaine. There were symbols of war and victory, figures of victory with widespread wings and flowing gowns; later, Imperial emblems, such as the eagle, made their appearance. Obviously Greek art with its quiet simplicity could not adequately express the spirit of Napoleon with his lofty idea of power. He required the solid and grandiose luxury found in Roman art.

Articles of furniture given new forms before the Empire are relatively few. In chair design two types are most frequent, and like all chairs in the Directoire style their rear legs, square of section, curve outward. Their line is directly continued by the uprights of the back; this is the first sign to appear in imitation of the Greek klismos and presents a very elegant line. Of the two typical Directoire chairs, one form is still close to the Louis XVI chair. The uprights of the slightly concave back flare outward and backward toward the top, making more or less pronounced corners. The other characteristic chair has a rolled-over back, like a form of Greek klismos. Both forms of chair have front legs turned round and tapering; the arms terminate in samll round knobs, volutes, or are cut off square and decorated with a carved daisy on the top. Especially typical is the small palm leaf or shell carved at the point of the arm where it joins the upright. The armposts are baluster or columnar in shape; sometimes, as one of Madame Récamier’s fauteuils, the armposts are in the form of winged sphinxes or a similar motif. The carved ornament, which is very sedate, comprises daisies, stars, soupières, a kind of antique vase, fillets in relief, while the lozenge, either complete of with the corners cut off, is one of the most frequently repeated of all these typical Directorie motifs.

Perhaps the most celebrated piece of Directoire furniture is the daybed, inspired by the Grecian couch. Its most distinguishing features are the rolled-over ends either of equal height, like the one made famous by the portrait of Madame Récamier by David, or of unequal height, while the feet are toupie or top-shaped or curve outward like the rear legs of the fauteuil, presenting a gracefully swept line. The lit en bateau, the typical Empire bed, made its debut before the First Empire came into being. Many pieces, such as commodes and writing furniture, are essentially a continuation of the Louis XVI style treated with greater severity.

Learn about each era:

> Middle Ages

> Renaissance and Louis XIII
> Louis XIV
> Régence
> Louis XV
> Transition and Louis XVI
> Directoire
> Empire
> XIXth century
> Art Nouveau
> The Modern Movement


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