French style during the early 19th century is characterized by a strong emphasis on Greek and Roman imagery from antiquity. In many ways, it is a continuation of the Neoclassicism of the late 18th century. After the French Revolution of 1789, the new government encouraged the use of Neoclassical imagery in order to create a new national identity based on Enlightenment principles that were inspired by classical thought and the ideals of ancient Greek democracy. When Napoleon came to power in 1804, he continued to encourage a national identity based on these classical polities. In particular, he associated France with the Roman Empire and himself with the Caesars whose wealth and power he wished to emulate. Under his control, early Neoclassicism morphed into the more sculptural and severe “Empire” style.

The austere composition, the heavy, sculptural forms of the urn, sphinxes, and torchieres, and the trompe-l’oeil effect of this frieze wallpaper is typical of the Empire style. The iconography includes Roman-inspired motifs, such as a marble urn, two torchieres, and two sphinxes with hindquarters made of acanthus leaves. The decoration on the urn includes two panthers facing another torchiere, in an arrangement that echoes that of the overall frieze. The urn also features an upper frieze of carved cow skulls holding up a garland, a decorative form called bucrania which was popular in antiquity.[1] Furthermore, the trompe-l’oeil effect of the wallpaper is reminiscent of Roman bas-reliefs, but there is none of the cold sense of marble in this wallpaper thanks to the use of deep blue and warm umber tones. These colors also bring to mind similar friezes in Pompeian wall paintings.

This wallpaper was block-printed, meaning the beautiful shading and highlights on the sphinxes and urn were carefully applied by hand, one gradation of color at a time, using cut blocks. Given the number of tones used in the frieze, there must have been a large number of blocks used to make this work. As a result the paper would have been both labor-intensive and expensive. Overall, this frieze is beautifully printed, visually bold, and stands as an excellent example of popular Empire style iconography.


[1] John Fleming and Hugh Honour, The Penguin Dictionary of Decorative Arts (London: Viking, 1989), 135.

This post was written by Nick Lopes, a first-year student in the Parsons Cooper Hewitt Master’s Program in Design History and Curatorial Studies.

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