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Empire and Regency Styles
Two distinctive movements, now known as the Empire Style and the Regency Style, were born out of the formal Neoclassicism that dominated late eighteenth century European building and decoration. These styles were stimulated in large part by the bitter rivalry of France and England and their rulers. Napoleon I (1769-1821), self-styled Emperor of the French, chose to extend France’s imperial grandeur through force of arms. Upon assuming the throne in 1804, he immediately launched an ambitious art and design program that lasted until his reign ended in 1815. Across the English Channel, the Prince Regent, the future King George IV (1762-1830), sought ways to celebrate England’s heritage through his active patronage of the arts.
Social conditions in this time period, often known as the Napoleonic era, created the two new decorative styles. New archaeological findings in Greece, Rome, Pompeii and Egypt inspired a wave of key pattern books. Furniture and art from antiquity enlivened the new styles. A shared taste for Egyptomania and the symbolic application of ornament simultaneously animated contemporary furnishings in France and England. Since the Napoleonic era was a time of continuous military conflict, martial designs crept into fashionable decoration, bringing camp furniture, pennant-style draperies, and tented beds into vogue.
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Compiled by Paula A. Baxter, Art & Architecture Collection, 9/04
Using the Library’s Catalog
The Empire and Regency styles do not have direct headings in the Library of Congress Subject Headings volumes. Instead, the terms used are:
Decoration and Ornament—Empire Style
Decoration and Ornament—Regency Style
Also, geographic subdivisions can be used, as in
Decoration and Ornament—France—Empire Style
Related headings of use may be:
Furniture, Regency —Great Britain
England—Social life and customs—19th century
France—Social life and customs—19th century
Two concise encyclopedia entries exist that define the Empire and Regency Styles. They are:
Derek Linstrum. “Empire Style,” Vol. 1, pp. 412-415.
Steven Parissien. “Regency Style,” Vol. 2, pp. 1036-1041.
IN: Encyclopedia of Interior Design. Edited by Joanna Banham. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997. (MLO 97-13993 Front)
Curl, James Stevens. Egyptomania: The Egyptian Revival, a Recurring Theme in the History of Taste. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1994. (3-MAL 94-13038)
Includes an essay on “The Egyptian Revival after the Napoleonic Campaigns in Egypt,” which describes the contributions of Denon Vivant, Thomas Hope, and others, and how the use of Egyptian motifs fit into contemporary Neoclassical expression, especially in furniture design.
Glover, Michael. The Napoleonic Wars: An Illustrated History, 1792-1815. London: Batsford, 1979. (JFF 80-1366)
Overview study of the chronological progression of conflicts from the time of the French Revolution until Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Provides quick access to dates, statistics, and historical context.
Historical Dictionary of the Napoleonic Era. Edited by George F. Nafziger. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2002. (*R-DG 02-3989)
Ready reference tool for looking up key terms for individuals, locations, battles, and other events of the time period.
France – Social History
Napoleon Bonaparte came to power on the ashes of the fiery French Revolution, and distinguished himself militarily during the brief and chaotic Directoire period (1795-98). General Bonaparte engineered his rise from First Consul to Emperor in 1804 by cleverly manipulating weak politicians and an admiring army. Napoleon’s coronation, a dazzling display of pomp and pageantry, signaled the beginnings of an energetic overhaul of the French establishment in which his hand could be seen everywhere. Napoleon’s personal involvement extended to the creation of an artistic style, based on the Neoclassical aesthetic, which celebrated monumental scale, masculine severity, and bold ornamentation.
Boime, Albert. Art in an Age of Bonapartism 1800-1815. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. (3-MAM 91-5522)
A study of the wide-ranging effect of Napoleon on the arts in France, England, and continental Europe. Examines social, political, and economic factors and the careers of key fine artists.
Gengembre, Gérard. Napoleon: The Immortal Emperor. New York: Vendome, 2003. (JFF 03-3292)
Handsome illustrated survey of the iconography of Napoleon from his era to the present.
Mansel, Philip. The Eagle in Splendor: Napoleon I and his Court. London: George Philip, 1987. (JFF 88-890)
Explores the protocol, pomp, pageantry, and motivation behind Napoleon ’s establishment of an imperial court.
England – Social History
George, the Prince of Wales, was born the eldest son of King George III. From an early age, the Prince became disaffected with his role: he was denied any extensive education or foreign travel, and not permitted active service in the military. Deprived of all appropriate occupations, he turned to the pursuit of pleasure, distressing his father with his fondness for wine, women, and conspicuous consumption. Over time, George became a sophisticated patron of the fine and decorative arts, and he did much to encourage noteworthy innovations in English architecture and decoration. The Regency Style owes a great debt to George’s active patronage during his years as Prince, Regent, and King.
Erickson, Carolly. Our Tempestuous Day: A History of Regency England. New York: Morrow, 1986. (JLE 86-2146)
A rich evocation of the powerful passions and personalities of the Regency period, dominated by the Prince Regent himself, but manifest in various artistic, literary, and political figures. Explains the racy nature of the times.
Murray, Venetia. High Society: A Social History of the Regency Period, 1788-1830. London; New York: Viking, 1998. (JFE 99-2690)
An informative study of the upper classes in Britain and their contributions to progress. Social customs and mores are exposed.
Parissien, Steven. George IV: The Grand Entertainment. London: John Murray, 2001. (JFE 01-6106)
Biographical study focuses on George’s accomplishments in both the arts and politics. Discusses his architectural patronage and the factors that led to the Regency Style being named after him.
Priestley, J.B. The Prince of Pleasure and His Regency 1811-1820. London: Heinemann, 1969. (F-11 6272)
Examines the events of the Regency years and how they affected George, and how he in turn influenced England.
Smith, E.A. George IV. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1999. (JFE 00-11665)
A serious political study of the monarch in the making and his reign.
FRANCE – The Empire Style
The Empire Style was born from the merger of art and personal aspiration. France’s Emperor wanted a new look: the resultant innovative designs were clean and severe and bear the stamp of Napoleon’s preference for masculine and military effects. The Emperor chose two ambitious visionaries, Charles Percier (1764-1838) and Pierre-Léonard Fontaine (1762-1853), to be his official architects and decorators. They published Recueil de décorations interieures in 1801 and again in 1812, making it the most influential pattern book of the Empire Style. Percier and Fontaine made important innovations within the Louvre and the Tuileries, and their decorative program was carried out in such royal residences as Malmaison and Fontainebleau.
Furniture was generally rectangular and symmetrical, and bronze doré appliqué, burnished gold, and jewel-like inlay finishes became hallmarks of the new style. The Empire Style also popularized specific furniture forms: the table de toilette, consoles, tented beds, and camp stools. Ornament, drawn from antique sources, fit well with the concept of imperial dynasty and conquest, and details featuring eagles, bees, Napoleon’s initials, and laurel wreathes took pride of place on cabinetry and metalware. Artistic metalwork flourished in an outpouring of pendulum clocks, gold and silver table pieces, and decorative candelabra. Silk and velvet fabrics were draped, swagged, or suspended from ceilings to achieve an elegant yet martial effect.
Influential Pattern Books
Contet, F. Intérieurs Directoire et Empire. Paris: Editeur d’Art, 1932. (MLES++)
Early twentieth century watercolor plates of original Empire Style interiors.
Denon, Vivant. Voyages dans la basse et la haute Egypte, pendant les campagnes de Bonaparte. London: S. Bagster, 1809. (Stuart 7095-7096)
Classic study of ancient Egyptian monuments and their decoration compiled during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt (1797-8). Serves as source book for motifs that spurred the Egyptomania design craze.
Percier, Charles. Recueil de décorations intérieures comprenant tout ce qui a rapport à ameublement comme vases trépieds, candélabras…. Paris: P. Didot l’Ainé, 1812. (MLO++)
This pattern book was developed by Napoleon’s official architects. Percier and Fontaine favored symbolic and ornamental motifs that made their way into the working repertoire of the Empire Style. They also believed that furniture and interiors had a significant interrelationship.
The Empire Style
Decorative styles often cannot be firmly dated, because their inspiration may be felt earlier than and extend beyond the actual period of their flourishing. The Empire Style is most often given the dates of Napoleon’s reign, 1804-15, but its features developed in the earlier Directoire and Consulat periods (1795-1803), and Empire Style furnishings were still being produced in Europe, particularly in Sweden, into the 1830s. Napoleon’s domination of the world stage until 1815 provided the means for the Empire Style to spread throughout Europe and make its way to artistically Francophile England.
The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire, 1789-1815. Kateli le Bourbis, general editor. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989. (3-MML+90-4501)
This catalogue of a major exhibition demonstrates how clothing of the period influenced and affected contemporary furnishings and contributed to the development of the Empire Style.
Aprà, Nietta. Empire Style 1804-1815. New York: World Pub., 1973.(MLES+ 73-1723)
Well-illustrated, terse survey history of the style with emphasis on its chief characteristics and most notable pieces.
Baudot, François. Empire Style. London: Thames & Hudson, 1999. (3-MLES 00-8123)
A review of the style and its achievements in various media.
Barrielle, Jean-François. Le Style Empire. Paris: Flammarion, 1982. (3-MLES 86-1065)
Concise visual survey of the fine and decorative arts of the Directoire (1789-1799) and First Empire (1800-1815).
Deschamps, Madeleine. Empire. New York: Abbeville, 2004. (JQF 04-796)
This handsome plate book relates major social factors, including the personalities of Napoleon and Josephine themselves, directly to the works of the Empire Style. Also shows the extent of the style’s spread to other geographic regions.
Gonzáles-Palacio, Alvar. The French Empire Style. Feltham: Hamlyn, 1970. (3-MLES 86-2087)
Stylishly written evaluation of painting, sculpture, architecture, porcelain, textiles, wallpaper and tapestries, bronzes, silverware and objets d ’art.
Napoleon’s promotion of Classical-inspired decoration was intended as a powerful counterpoint to the stylistic excesses of the Baroque and Rococo—and the anciens régimes that supported such effects. Antique themes and motifs were used to promote France’s civic and martial ideals. Cabinetry and metalwork by Jacob-Desmalter, Biennais, Thomire, and Odiot were rendered in the bold new Empire Style. The interrelationship of architectural setting, furniture, and decoration assumed great importance in the eyes of Percier and Fontaine and other purveyors of the style.
Bourgeois, Emile. Le style empire, ses origins et ses caractéres… Paris: H. Laurens, 1930. (3-MLES)
Survey of Empire Style building and decoration in black and white photographs.
Fontainebleau, les petits appartements de Napoléon et Joséphine. Versailles: Editions artistiques et scientifiques, A. Bourdier, 1912. (MLES+)
The original furnishings and interiors of this royal residence are profiled, along with relevant design history.
Grandjean, Serge. Empire Furniture, 1800 to 1825. New York: Taplinger Pub. Co., 1966. (MOF)
Explains the various forms and types of furniture developed during this period, with emphasis on innovations.
Groër, Léon de. Decorative Arts in Europe 1790-1850. New York: Rizzoli, 1986. (3-MLD+ 86-4891)
A broad survey history discusses all decorative designs in this time frame within their Neoclassical context.
Janneau, Guillaume. L’Empire. Paris: Vincent, Fréal et Cie., 1965. (MAMI)
Concise study of the highlights of Empire Style decoration, with a close look at favored ornament and motifs.
Lafond, Paul. L’art décorative et le mobilier sous la République et l’Empire. Paris: Société de propagation des livres d’art, 1906. (MLES+)
Another source book that studies the genesis of Empire Style design.
Lefuel, Hector. François Honoré Georges Jacob-Desmalter, ébeniste de Napoléon Ier et de Louis XVIII. Paris: A. Morancé, 1927. (3-MOF)
A study of a leading artistic cabinetmaker and furniture designer.
ENGLAND – The Regency Style
Originally known as “English Empire,” this style was eventually named after the individual most responsible for its dissemination—England’s Prince Regent. The Regency Style owes a great deal to the Empire Style, but refinements were added to make it more suitable to English tastes. Both the Empire and Regency styles share an affinity for simple lines, bold contours, and sleek surfaces.
The beginnings of the Regency Style, marked by delicate and restrained Classical Greek forms, may be seen in the later work of Thomas Sheraton and in Thomas Hope’s Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807). Stylistic innovations include more intimate interiors, the introduction of en suite furniture, carefully placed ornament, the abundant use of fabrics such as silk damask and flowered chintz, evocative colors drawn from antique sources, and new, technologically improved materials.
This period saw a continuous search for novelties in design. Chinoiserie and the “Hindu,” or Indian, styles became fashionable, along with nationalistically inspired Gothic or Tudor decorative elements. The Greek chair with sabre legs, elegant sideboards, revolving bookcases, and couches with claw feet were popular. The Regency Style is regularly revived in modern interior design and decoration for its period resonance.
Influential Pattern Books
Hope, Thomas. Household furniture and interior decoration. London: T. Bensley, 1807. (MLO++)
This publication introduced the term “interior decoration” for the first time in English language literature. Author’s drawings stimulated the taste for academically inspired ornament in Greek, Roman, and Egyptian modes
Nicholson, Peter. The Practical cabinet-maker, upholsterer, and complete decorator. London: H. Fisher, Son & Co., 1826. (MOI)
Illustrates a number of furniture pieces and furnishings directly derived from Empire Style designs, along with designs that reflect the growing pluralism inherent in the Regency Style.
Sheraton, Thomas. The Cabinet maker and artist’s encyclopaedia. London, 1805-6. (8-MOF+)
Designer’s late work shows the evolving Regency Style, and many popular decorative motifs of the period, from Trafalgar chairs with sabre legs to French-style beds.
Smith, George. The Cabinet-maker and upholsterer’s guide… London: Jones, 1826. (MOI)
Inspired by Hope, among others, this designer’s guide shows the range of popular Regency (and Empire) designs offered for contemporary furniture-makers and general consumers.
Regency Style Architecture
The architectural patronage of George IV is generally considered his greatest legacy. He employed such leading architects as John Nash, Sir Jeffry Wyatville, and Sir John Soane. The Prince of Wales’s first successful venture was the redecoration of his London palace, Carlton House, started in 1783 by architect Henry Holland. George sponsored significant renovations at Buckingham Palace (formerly Buckingham House) and Windsor Castle during his years as Prince Regent and King.
Bingham, Neil. C.A. Busby: the Regency Architect of Brighton and Hove. London: RIBA Heinz Gallery, 1991. (3-MQZ (Busby) 93-8911)
Busby’s career reveals the aesthetic and practical inclinations of a Regency era architect.
Morley, John. Regency Design, 1790-1840: Gardens, Buildings, Interiors, Furniture. London: Zwemmer, 1993. (MLE 93-9590)
Ranges over the built environment of the period, and explains innovations in interior decoration, spatial planning, and urban design.
Pilcher, Donald. The Regency Style 1800 to 1830. London: B.T. Batsford, 1947. (MQWK)
Examines the style in a broad architectural context, and contrasts new achievements with earlier Neoclassical building.
Pyne, William Henry. The History of the Royal Residences of Windsor Castle, St. James’s Palace, Carlton House, and Frogmore. London: A. Dry, 1819. 3 vol. (MQWK+)
Showcases the Regency Style interiors of these palaces, revealing the prevailing tastes of the Prince Regent and his period.
Reilly, Paul. An Introduction to Regency Architecture. London: Art and Technics, 1948. (MQWK)
Solid academic study of the Regency period’s use of the Neoclassical mode.
Worsley, Giles. Architectural Drawings of the Regency Period, 1790-1837: from the drawings collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects. London: A. Deutsch, 1991. (3-MQG 92-2886)
Practical visual study of building plans and design concepts.
The Royal Pavilion at Brighton
George’s Royal Pavilion at Brighton serves as the best-known monument to the Regency Style. This seaside palace underwent various transformations at the hands of four architects. Henry Holland oversaw the renovation of the original farmhouse, which was renamed the “Marine Pavilion” and a further enlargement in 1801-4. William Porden built the stables and Riding House, and John Nash supervised the rebuilding of the now Royal Pavilion from 1815 through 1823, guided by George’s stylistic flights of fancy. Two gifted interior decorators, Robert Jones and Frederick Crace, devised the exotically oriental interiors, acting on George’s enthusiasm for chinoiserie.
Morley, John. The Making of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton: Designs and Drawings. Boston: Godine, 1984. (3-MAV+ 86-2162)
The most extensive study of this building, including conservation history, with detailed information about its decorators and their various design schemes.
Musgrave, Clifford. Royal Pavilion: A Study in the Romantic. Brighton: Bredon & Heginbothom, 1951. (MQWK)
Classic architectural history of the palace and its place in English building construction.
Roberts, Henry David. A History of the Royal Pavilion, with an account of its original furniture and decoration. London: Country Life, 1939. (MQWK)
Explains the Pavilion’s layout in the context of how the palace was utilized.
The Royal Pavilion, Brighton. Brighton: Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery and Museums, 1976.
(MAVY+ (Brighton) 78-246)
Well-illustrated survey history that also explains the palace’s relationship to Brighton itself.
Regency Style Decoration
While the actual years of the political Regency were 1811-20, various dates are given for the Regency Style. The most prevalent dates are 1783-1830, or 1800-1830. Some historians extend the Regency Style into a late phase, 1830-37, which spans the reign of George IV’s brother and successor, King William IV.
Collard, Frances. Regency Furniture. Woodbridge, UK: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1985. (3-MOF 86-1351)
While intended as a collector’s guide, this work offers good illustrations and practical identification information.
Jourdain, Margaret. Regency Furniture, 1795-1830. London: Country Life, 1965. (MOF+)
Profiles the various types of furniture forms and explains their unique qualities.
Musgrave, Clifford. Regency Furniture 1800-1830. London: Faber, 1970. (MOF)
A classic study of fine furniture built in a period that saw the apogee of this style.
Parissien, Steven. Regency Style. London: Phaidon, 1992. (3-MQWK+ 93-1979)
An authoritative survey of what technical, practical, and aesthetic considerations went into the creation of the Regency Style, and the effects of this style ’s social impact.
Wintersgill, Donald. English Antiques, 1700-1830. New York: Morrow, 1975. (MAVC 76-2176)
Places Regency Style furnishings within the larger context of the Georgian era.
Selected Internet Sites
Most of the resources to be found on the Internet tend to be either encyclopedia definitions of the styles from online reference tools or commercial sites advertising products in the Empire and Regency styles. For some interesting visual resources with related links, see: