“The only way to lead people is to show them a future: a leader is a dealer in hope,” Napoleon Bonaparte sagely observed. Hailing from a Corsican family of minor nobles, Napoleon would rise to prominence during the French Revolution as a military leader to become Emperor of the French, then King of Italy, before losing it all.
With the belief that “the word impossible is not French,” Napoleon employed artists whose aesthetic vision served his political ambitions with the creation of Empire Style, an aesthetic at once regal and refined. Napoleon took notice of Charles Percier (1764-1938), a French architect, interior decorator and designer, who first drew accolades at age 19 when he won the Prix de Rome, a government-funded fellowship for study in Rome. Here Percier met Pierre François Léonard Fontaine (1762–1853), who became his professional partner.
In 1792, Percier received an appointment that would change his life: he was commissioned to supervise the scenery at Paris Opéra, the most modern and innovative space in French arts. Napoleon admired their gift for theatricality, seamlessly blending opulence with antiquity. He appointed Percier and Fontaine architectes du gouvernement in 1801, giving them the empire’s most important works including renovations to the Louvre and the Tuileries Palace, as well grand estates as Fontainebleau and the Château de Malmaison.
As the progenitors of Empire Style, Percier and Fontaine established a vision of power, grandeur, and grace, one that distinguished Napoleon at the vanguard of a new era in modern history. “Imagination governs the world,” Napoleon observed, a sensibility Percier and Fontaine shared. As architects of Empire Style, they embraced the symbols of ancient Rome — the last great imperial power in the West — and infused it with pomp and pageantry of European aristocracy.
Working in the service of an emperor who imagined France as the center of a unified Europe, Percier and Fontaine brought the majesty of Napoleon’s vision to life in all manner of scale. Equally skilled as interior designers and decorators, as well as architects, Percier and Fontaine imbued a sublime splendor to tea tables, boiserie, beds, candelabra, chandeliers, ceilings, and the like. Their love of ornament was balanced by the rigorous spirit of symmetry, emblazoning Napoleonic emblems like the eagle, the bee, stars, and the initials “I” (for Imperator) and “N” (for Napoleon) alongside imperial motifs such as swans, lions, oxen heads, horses, chimera, sphinxes, rosettes, palm branches, and other figures of victory.
Percier and Fontaine’s influence extended far beyond their shores, as then-American President James Monroe ordered the Blue Room of the White House redone in Empire style after witnessing their work while attending Napoleon’s coronation, though the leader of the newly-established United States was tellingly seated out of sight of the key power players.
Percier would go on to draw far more than he ever produced, his vision as grand and far reaching as that of Napoleon. Their time as architectes du gouvernement would be short lived, but their dreams for the empire linger on in thousands of drawings of works waiting to be realized. As Napoleon observed, “What are we? What is the future? What is the past? What magic fluid envelops us and hides from us the things it is most important for us to know? We are born, we live, and we die in the midst of the marvelous.”
Written by Miss Rosen.
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