Napoléon Bonaparte loathed the Bourbons who preceded him on France’s throne. That included their homes, notably Château de Versailles, which he wondered why it had not been reduced to rubble during the revolution of 1789–99. It was architectural shade shared by his devoted image-makers, Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine. To them, they wrote, Versailles was “a deformed midget whose gigantesque members, even more deformed, increased its ugliness.” Small wonder that the design-and-architecture duo, the most popular of the day, were commissioned to give the swaggering Corsican-born emperor a new stylistic vocabulary, one that spoke of grandeur, power, even aggression. Not to put too fine a point on it, Percier and Fontaine invented, what Apollo magazine once declared, “dictator chic.”
Published today by Princeton Architectural Press, in association with the Institute of Classical Art and Architecture, The Complete Works of Percier and Fontaine encapsulates the team’s particular genius, an aesthetic mode first known as style républicain but which became known as style Empire once it was adopted by Napoléon and his extended family. The appropriately imperial volume—gold lettering on a jet-black dust jacket—gathers together all Percier and Fontaine designs that were published between 1798 and 1812, engravings of tea tables, boiseries, friezes, beds, and ceilings that ravished Europe’s sensibilities as swiftly as Napoléon’s army invaded its countries. America wasn’t immune to Percier and Fontaine’s charms either: President James Monroe refurbished the Blue Room of the White House in Empire style after being exposed to the designers’ work on trips to Paris, one to attend Napoléon’s coronation. (Alas, he would be disappointed by that particular visit, later griping that he and his wife had been stuck “in the gallery, a great measure out of sight, and not with those in our grade, the Foreign Ministers.”)
“Percier and Fontaine are unusual in that they were incredibly influential over a period of relatively constant warfare, so much so that they changed tastes on both sides of political oppositions,” says Columbia University Professor Barry Bergdoll, who wrote the book’s introductory essay. “They were proto-globalists.” Another intriguing aspect of the engravings, he continues, is their lack of polychromy. “The published works predate the ability to print in color. People didn’t know Percier and Fontaine’s color schemes, so they invented them, creating free interpretations from their line drawings. If you were person of great means, you could buy a deluxe edition that was hand-colored by a woman who worked in their office.” That presumably included some of Percier and Fontaine’s supportive subscribers, largely fellow architects, engineers, painters, and sculptors, from Claude-Nicolas Ledoux to Jacques-Louis David.
Even in black and white, Percier and Fontaine’s work dazzles. The 441-page book, part of Princeton Architectural Press’s Classic Reprint Series and expertly scanned from originals, contains scores of engravings, beginning with Roman palaces and houses that the pair sketched on a youthful trip in the 1790s to a plan to revamp Paris’s 17th-century Palais-Royal in 1829. Romantic, sun-strafed views of noble courtyards give way to architectural details, each more extravagantly detailed than the last. A covered tureen for Empress Joséphine shows up, as do candelabra galore, a platinum-inlaid room for Carlos IV of Spain, a fantastical chimneypiece for a Polish prince, a covered soup tureen (another design for Joséphine), a spiky chandelier for a client who came bearing an assortment of rock crystals, and a panoply of wonders for customers in Madrid, Saint Petersburg, Russia, Amsterdam, and beyond, many of the furnishings made in the Jacob workshops as well as by artisans in the clients’ cities. Also included are views of the interiors of Malmaison, the country house that brought the Bonapartes into their orbit in 1799, and which, following the first pre-renovation site meeting, Fontaine pronounced “awful.” Today it is famed as a Percier and Fontaine paradise.
My favorite Percier and Fontaine conjuring is mind-bogglingly odd: a plumbed mahogany jardinière, or Table à Fleurs, for a Swedish client identified only as “C. W.” Imagine a tall elevated circular flower bed with a goldfish bowl nestled between its legs and a birdcage above, the whole topped by a beefy evocation of Hebe, though the goddess of youth’s poitrine gives the impression that neither Percier nor Fontaine had an intimate understanding of the female body. Women, indeed, seem to have been rare beings in the designers’ personal lives, as far as anyone can tell, and there has been some discussion that the men may have been a couple, if not a throuple. (Then again, perhaps it was just a passionate friendship between a trio of like minds.) Percier, Fontaine, and Charles-Louis Bernier, an architect friend, are buried together, as they intended from their days as impoverished if talented school chums, in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery. Fontaine designed the monument. The inscription? Hi tres en unum, Latin for They are three in one.