This style of antique furniture arose in France in the early to mid 1800s after Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804, filling a vacuum that had been left when the monarchy was overthrown in the 1789 French Revolution. During this era, a sense of grandiosity influenced furniture design. This was due to several factors. Napoleon liked to identify with the splendor and power of imperial Rome, and his conquering of Egypt led to a fascination with all things Egyptian. The decorative themes also built on the Neoclassical designs that had previously been popular under the overthrown King Louis XVI, but they were subject to a more militaristic feel that reflected the politics of the time.
The result was a very powerful and stately look in furniture and decorative antiques. Furniture included elegant column and arch designs that were reminiscent of classical Rome. The famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris was built during this era and it is an excellent example of the imposing grandeur that typifies this Empire period.
As part of the Egyptian influence we also see many symbols to represent the sphinx.
A sphinx is a mythical creature with has a human head but the body of a lion. Images of the sphinx and its claw feet appeared as a decorative detail on all kinds of furniture. Other animals on display included the mythical griffin, which is part lion and part eagle, and the more familiar serpents and swans.
The look was strong and masculine, and mahogany was often the wood of choice. Gold ormolu may frequently be seen adorning this style of furniture and home accessories, adding to the rich look of the pieces. Ormulu laurel wreaths were used as decorations on furniture, representing victory in battle.
Just as Napoleon made his conquests in the Old World, the Empire style of furniture made a conquest that still captures the imagination and makes a powerful impression today.