The Napoleon III Style

The Napoleon III-Second Empire style was built on the codes already set by the 1844 Exhibition under King Louis-Philippe. It is an era of rich decoration and ornamentation. Decorative artists, such as the ornamental sculptor Alfred Jacquemart, the metalworker Charles Christofle, and the cabinetmaker Alfred Beurdeley, gained a certain status during this period.

Second Empire art was just as attached to tradition as it was to progress and the social evolutions of its time.
On one hand, the 19th century was the century of eclecticism, where different styles from the past were reused and mixed together to create a "style without style." For example, the Second Empire saw a revival of tortoiseshell and metal marquetry furniture in the style of André-Charles Boulle, "meubles à mécanisme" (furniture with a special, sometimes secret, mechanism) inspired by the 18th century, Louis XV and Louis XVI-style living rooms, and Renaissance-Henri II-style dining rooms.
Also, Empress Eugénie, as she was a great admirer of Marie-Antoinette, brought back decorative elements from the Louis XVI style, like flower-baskets and tied ribbons, which led to a "Louis XVI-Empress style".
On the other hand, the 19th century was the century of industrialization in France, which progressed throughout the Second Empire. Technical progress led to new inventions such as large tufted cushions, industrially produced cast iron furniture, gold-plating, carton pierre, and electroplating. In this way, luxurious decors became more affordable for the public.

During the Second Empire, Paris was completely transformed by Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann. Many monuments were renovated or constructed, such as the Palais de Justice and the Paris Opera for example. New Haussmann buildings were often inhabited by Bourgeois who wished to decorate their interiors luxuriously and magnificently. Exuberant shapes and profuse decorative motifs were typical of the Napoleon III style.

Louis XVI style

After the excesses of the Louis XV style decors, the Louis XVI style, which began around 1775 and ended with the French Revolution around 1790, returned to simplicity, straight lines, and a simple and refined elegance, by combining the antique register with pastoral representations.

This enthusiasm for Antiquity and its aesthetic arouse with the discovery of the Antique ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, towards 1750. Artists traveled to Italy to practice their art, and some albums diffused the antique vestiges, their ornamentations, or even the objects that used to adorn it. Thus, all the antique repertoire was found into the Louis XVI style's decorative arts: trophies, sphinx, acanthus leaves, Greek friezes

At the time of the first cottages or of the New Heloise, written by J-J. Rousseau, the other major source of inspiration was nature. The queen's hamlet in the Palace of Versailles, offered by the king in 1782, represents well that taste for a pastoral full of sentimentalism and knowingly neglected.


« The grotesque is a kind of free and humorous picture produced by the ancients for the decoration of vacant spaces in some position where only things placed high up are suitable. For this purpose, they fashioned monsters deformed by a freak of nature or by the whim and fancy of the workers, who in these grotesque pictures make things outside of any rule, attaching to the finest thread a weight that it cannot support, to a horse legs of leaves, to a man the legs of a crane, and similar follies and nonsense without end. He whose imagination ran the most oddly, was held to be the most able".
Giorgio Vasari, "About painting", circa 1550

In the late 15th century, Italians named "grotesques" the paintings which were covering vaults and walls of underground antic ruins that gave the impression of caves ("grotte" in Italian). From their rediscovery, and especially the finding of the Domus Aurea, the grotesques - copied or reinvented - enjoyed a large success which would only decline at the beginning of the 19th century. First used in mural ornamentation with Raphael, Michelangelo or Domenico Ghirlandaio, this decor was slowly disseminated into Europe by etchings and engravings, and his motifs were reported into gold or silver works, ceramics, or even furniture. After it was adapted to French Classicism, Jean Berain gave the grotesques a second wind.


Japanese art deeply influenced occidental art in the second half of the 19th century. Edmond de Goncourt wrote in his Journal in April 1884 that "Japonisme, was in the process of revolutionizing the vision of the European peoples, [it] brought to Europe a new sense of color, a new decorative system, and […] a poetic imagination".

From the 1860s, trade agreements between Japan and European countries multiplied, the lacquers, prints or objects of art poured from Far East into the World's Fair. A real enthusiasm rose for Japan, a fashion that would last almost half a century.

Manet and the impressionists were the first Europeans to take Japanese art for a source of inspiration. Seeking for new ways of expression, those painters appropriated this discovery and combined their different styles and artistic conceptions. It was also the interior design that Japonism pervaded with mostly the works of Mackintosh and of Josef Hoffman. Edouard Lièvre, Duvinage and Gabriel Viardot, or also the Daï Nippon company, the Maison des Bambous and the Escalier de Cristal renewed, with this new style, the cabinet manufacturing and the decorative arts.