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Directoire style

Directoire style describes a period in the decorative arts, fashion, and especially furniture design, concurrent with the post-Revolution French Directory (November 2, 1795 through November 10, 1799). The style uses Neoclassical architectural forms, minimal carving, planar expanses of highly grained veneers, and applied decorative painting. It is a style transitional between Louis XVI and Empire.

The Directoire style was primarily established by the architects and designers Charles Percier (1764–1838) and Pier François Léonard Fontaine (1762–1853). In its use of Neoclassical architectural form and decorative motifs the style anticipates the slightly later and more elaborate Empire style, which was introduced after Napoleon established the First French Empire.

The Directoire style reflected the Revolutionary belief in the values of republican Rome:

“The stoic virtues of Republican Rome were upheld as standards not merely for the arts but also for political behaviour and private morality. Conventionels saw themselves as antique heroes. Children were named after Brutus, Solon and Lycurgus. The festivals of the Revolution were staged by Jacques-Louis David as antique rituals. Even the chairs in which the committee of Salut Publique sat were made on antique models devised by David…. In fact Neo-classicism became fashionable”.

Previous or pre-existing styles
Louis XVI style : from 1785 , he announced the Empire style , with the appearance of certain decorative themes.

Main features
The shapes are simpler: the discrete curves and straight lines without rigidity combine in great elegance. The Directoire style announces the Empire style without having the heaviness.

Taking its name from the Directory , that is to say from the government of the Directors that lasted four years, from 1795 to 1799, this style does not form an independent entity, but must be defined as a phenomenon of transition, making the link between Louis XVI and Empire styles. In a word, it is a style that comes from both the late Louis XVI and the beginnings of the Empire. Already under the reign of Louis XVI, a movement advocating a more faithful imitation of ancient models had come into being; however, it was only with the Empire that it reached its full maturity. If the Revolution of 1789 was not at the origin of a radical change in the field of the furniture, it still allowed to accelerate the movement, this one answering precisely the taste of the revolutionaries for the republican ideals of the societies of Antiquity.

Many pieces belonging to the Directoire style prolong the classical tradition of Louis XVI, but with a more severe treatment. At this time, full of allegories of all kinds, revolutionary emblems invade furniture, wall decor and textiles. Among them are the Phrygian cap (liberty), the spirit levels (equality), the joined hands (fraternity), the peaks (freedom of the man), the eye inscribed in a triangle (reason), the three orders of the nation are the cross (clergy), the sword (nobility) and the shovel summoned from the Phrygian cap (the third state), etc.

The furniture had to be the exact copy of pieces uncovered by the excavations of Pompeii, or be inspired by representations on antique vases or bas-reliefs.

David, the painter, did more for the establishment of this new taste than any other. He drew a series of pieces – more or less exact copies of Greco-Roman models – and ordered Jacob to produce them for him in 1789 or 1790. Among these famous pieces were curved mahogany chairs with X-shaped base, inspired by the Greek klismos, and the graceful, pure bed of rest on which David represented Madame Recamier .

The Revolution resulted in the suppression of trade corporations; these were in fact suppressed in 1791. This meant that the rules by which the corporations had controlled the training of craftsmen, their apprenticeship and their companionship, were abolished and that nothing further impeded the free production of manufactured goods, whatever the profession concerned. The luxury arts, such as the production of furniture, began to decline as of that date, with the exception of the prestigious furniture made under the First Empire by craftsmen who kept the traditions of excellence from the reigns of the three Louis.

The most celebrated interior decoration of the last years of the Republic belonged undoubtedly to Madame Recamier. At the cutting edge of stylistic evolution, this ensemble was due to the genius of two men, Percier and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine, the famous ornamentists.

Carved in mahogany, seats and day beds, with broad curves convincingly reminiscent of their Greek models, are often remarkable in their refined and archaeologically documented treatment. Other types of furniture of this period often displayed extravagant ornaments, both archeological and symbolic, such as Roman swords, lightning of Jupiter, hooked animals’ feet and muzzles of lions.

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After Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, in which a large number of scientists, writers and archaeologists took part, France and Europe were beset by the most virulent Egyptomania. Among the observers was the architect and archaeologist Dominique Vivant Denon (1747-1825) who took advantage of his stay in Egypt to collect the material of a book, The Voyage in Lower and Upper Egypt, published in 1802. This important work , very quickly known for his descriptions and his boards reproducing sphinxes and pylons, contributed very widely to the diffusion of ornaments of the Egyptian type. Indeed, shortly after its publication, many pieces of Egyptian inspiration appeared in the collections of drawings of Percier and Fontaine.

By the coup of November 9, 1799, Napoleon established the Consulate and became himself First Consul. This act marked the beginning of his role in artistic evolution, although he did not accede to the throne until 1804. As early as 1799, one of his preoccupations was to reconstitute a new court; to give her a dignified framework, he occupied existing palaces, but wished to refurnish them so as to evoke his own achievements and his regime. For this purpose, he employed Percier and Fontaine, ardent defenders of ancient taste, who redecorated Saint-Cloud, the Tuileries, the Louvre, and other palatial apartments in a style characteristic of that epoch, marked by important military conquests. It was during the Consulate that the erudite and archeological style that was to be that of the First Empire was born, born of the genius of Percier and Fontaine. The interior decoration thus multiplied the symbols associated with the war and the figures of victory with outstretched wings and floating draperies; later came the imperial emblems, like the eagles. Evidently, sober and simple Greek art did not succeed in rendering what imperial power wished to express in grandeur and heroism. The style of Napoleon went to seek his models in the massive and pompous art of ancient Rome.

Few pieces of furniture were given new forms before the Empire. In the field of the seat, two very common types are discernible and, like all the Directoire seats, their rear legs, of square section, have a sword-shaped curvature. These are then extended by the amounts of the file; this specific feature is the first element we notice in the imitations of the Greek klismos and does not lack elegance. Of the two types of Directoire seat, the first is still close to the Louis XVI style. The back, slightly concave, has flared uprights forming more or less pronounced angles with the top rail. The second has meanwhile an inverted file in lacrosse, in the manner of klismos. Common to both types are the forms of the fore feet, always turned and tapered; the armrests end in knobs, scrolls or are at right angles and adorned, at the connection with the backrest, a palm or a carved shell. The armrest supports are in the form of balusters or columns; sometimes, as is the case with one of Madame Recamier’s chairs, the supports take the form of a winged sphinx or a similar motif. The carved ornament, little tormented at this time, is declined in daisies, stars, tureens – a type of antique vase -, nets in relief; the rhombus, complete or with folded angles, is one of the most frequently repeated Directoire motifs.

The ornamentation gains sobriety, especially since the Revolution has led to the closure of many cabinetmaking workshops. The Pompeian style predominates, but the Renaissance-inspired motifs are also very fashionable and the first Egyptian-style decorations appear, all interpreted in a range of very particular colors. The stucco motifs or the sculptures stand out in bright and striking colors on Pompeian brown walls, the purple ones, the orange ones, the black being the favorite colors for the hangings. As for the motifs, we see the palmette appear and especially motifs of ancient inspiration (swans, sphynges) or military (helmets, trophies, swords). We note the frequent use of geometric patterns (diamonds, hexagons). The furniture is often lacquered.


Common furniture
Armchair (with backsides reversed at the back said “with sticks” or with “horns”)
Table (the pedestal tables are very popular)
Rectangular chest of drawers : they are in the extension of the Louis XVI style but are treated more soberly.
Writing desk

New furniture
Low Buffet
Cross Bed (or Side Bed)
Curule chair (repetition of Antiquity )

Madame Récamier on a Directoire style daybed, Jacques-Louis David (1800)
meridian or bed of rest: it is the most emblematic piece of furniture of the Directory; she is undoubtedly of Greek inspiration. It is characterized by reversed backs, of identical dimensions, like the one made famous by the portrait of Madame Récamier painted by David , or of slightly unequal sizes, while the feet can be in a top or affect the gracefully curved shape of the hind feet seats. The boat bed, typical of the Empire, made its entrance before the beginning of the First Empire.

Mahogany is the preferred wood. However, we can note the use of fruit trees and walnut . We also see furniture frames in gilded beech, painted or mahogany veneered.

Bronze is often used for the legs and some ornaments of the tables. Marble and porcelain are allocated to the realization of trays.

Cabinet Makers Representative of Style
Guillaume Beneman
Martin-Guilhaume Biennais
Georges Jacob
Adam Weisweiler

Source From Wikipedia