By contributing writer Stephanie Zgouridi
While living in Paris in 1784, surrounded by beautifully carved bureaus, tasteful tables, and fragile glass flutes of champagne, Benjamin Franklin penned a letter to a friend, in which he stated, “But the eyes of other people are the eyes that ruin us. If all but myself were blind, I should want neither fine clothes, fine houses, nor fine furniture.” Contained within Franklin’s words was a tacit judgment of vain opulence, and a reminder that such opulence was a fundamentally visual practice. Indeed, it was precisely because mankind was not blind that the fineries of the rich were broken or taken away during the French Revolution only a few years later, and that furnishing Napoleon’s spaces with taste and style was the equivalent of a political bid to gain status and power. And because the visual requires at least two components, that which is viewing and that which is viewed, I contend that the visual process is almost always a divisive one. It highlights activity versus passivity, the primary versus the secondary—but not always in the direction or the combinations that one might expect. In the Napoleonic period, for instance, the emperor’s architects were viewers of both him and his empire, in some ways even superseding Napoleon’s role in determining his own image and the national imaginary of the places to which he’d traveled.
Just fifteen years after Franklin’s departure from Paris, architects Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine came under the patronage of the Bonapartes, and with the best interest of their clients in mind, proceeded to design a corpus of work that would later fit under the bracket of “Empire-style furniture”, a term typically applied to architecture, furniture, and other decorative arts that aimed to glorify the First French Empire. In consideration of their patrons, Percier and Fontaine frequently produced furnishings that were grandiose in scale and dotted with Egyptian motifs, particularly the sphinx— elements of the caractère of the owner and his many voyages and exploits (Kruft, 166). Although today Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt is thought of as a loss, it is important to recall that he marched at least 40,000 men through Egypt’s great cities, Alexandria and Cairo, lighting them ablaze and capturing them, far before that defeat came. Percier and Fontaine, in line with Napoleon’s own sentiments, chose to cast the expedition as a victory in terms of a “conquest…over ignorance”, and so displayed as frequently as possible the many objects discovered and catalogued by Napoleon’s men during the expedition. The Sphinx of Giza was prominent amongst them (Strathern, 1).
A first glance at this situation might cause one to cast architects Percier and Fontaine as the viewers, and Napoleon himself as the viewed, a person deconstructed only to be reconstructed into a semblance of harmonious interior furnishings meant to impress guests. Some might even proceed to say that there is a difference in primacy of experience between these first viewers and those that were intended to view the very same tableau afterwards. Percier and Fontaine, after all, could do what even Napoleon could not. As the scholar Leora Auslander put it while discussing the relationship between the king and his objects during the Ancièn Regime, “Qualifying the king’s capacity to determine aesthetic form was the fact that neither the king nor his court could make anything. The crown was dependent on artisans, architects, and artists to create visual and mechanical forms” (30). Although Napoleon was no king in the absolutist sense, he was also no cabinetmaker. In terms of technical capacity, then, Napoleon and the future guests he hoped to impress were equally powerless. Patronage went a long way, but its influence ended where the role of the architect began. Only Percier and Fontaine, the direct producers of these objects, stood apart from both Napoleon and future viewers of these things. In this dynamic alone we see that the viewer may not always be the primary component in a visual exchange, for not all viewers are equal.
But just as not all viewers are equal, neither are all things that are viewed. The Egyptian motifs mentioned above show how specific bits and pieces of Egyptian culture might have been transported into Napoleon’s spaces, but still did not indicate any knowledge, understanding, or acceptance of it. In the works of Percier and Fontaine, this much was demonstrated by a variety of visual practices, perhaps most clearly through the placement of said elements in the pieces of furniture at large. Take the following piece included in their Recueil de Décorations Intérieures: Comprenant tout ce qui a Rapport à l’Ameublement as an example:
This jardinière designed by the duo, for instance, features sphinxes placed into only supporting roles— quite literally. In fact, not only were their heads somewhat ridiculously serving as supports for flower pots, but their wings were the supports for the structure that held up the large figure of the minor Greek goddess Hebe. That the goddess Hebe, designated in studies of Greek mythology to the humble status of a cupbearer, was the highest point and central feature of this piece (in their words, the piece was “crowned” by her statue) with the sphinxes meant as support clearly betrayed a lack of interest in understanding the status and place of the sphinx in the ancient Egyptian world (Percier and Fontaine, 23).
Positioning and placement in a static medium such as furniture-making was crucial, for once selected and built, changes were very difficult to make. The sphinxes in pieces of Empire furniture could not easily be molded or moved; likewise, neither could the status and position of Egyptian culture within Napoleon’s empire be easily disturbed. Percier and Fontaine, having previously worked on architecture and furnishings for the theater, were intimately aware of the fact that their art was a fundamentally static one. As Iris Moon put it in her study of Percier and Fontaine, “Essentially, the architecture of theater was a problem of motion: how to move the audience through static materials, and how to freeze the action of the play into scenes…” (44). While Napoleon’s properties were no theater in the traditional sense, they were theatrical all the same, decorated with furnishings meant to both frame and build upon the character of the emperor. In fact, this jardinière was to be gifted by Napoleon to Sweden, in a somewhat contradictory movement of a static piece and message. It was posturing in the farthest and largest sense, extending Napoleon’s viewership past the bounds of his empire. The problem of the static in the theater applied to the theater of everyday life. As Napoleon’s persona became an explicitly imperial one, the Egyptian campaign became immutably tied to the furnishings of the Bonapartes—and the practices of viewing the immovable, aesthetically potent, and structurally integral sphinx, as above, lay bare the dynamics of power in Napoleon’s empire.
But what does this lowly placement of Egyptian motifs in a static medium (as in the jardinière above as well as in countless other pieces featured in Percier and Fontaine’s Recueil) mean for the dynamic of viewing and being viewed? It suggests that Egyptian motifs were consistently refused primacy, despite the fact that they were ironically selected from within a vast range of possibilities by Percier and Fontaine for the express purpose of being seen. These images were borrowed and used as symbols precisely because they were to remain forever in the dark; it is only around the unknown and that which is not understood that one can build a myth of man, after all. In Percier and Fontaine’s quest to build Napoleon up, they did so by bringing Egypt and her many cultural images down. Her images became facets of one foreign man rather than the expressions of an entire culture and its history. It was not Napoleon that was ruined by the eyes of others and the opulent practices that that entailed— it was Egypt.
Stephanie Zgouridi is a first year PhD student in the Department of History at Princeton University, where she works on topics ranging from architecture to philosophy in modern Europe. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and a Master’s degree from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, which she completed under the aegis of a Fulbright Student Award to Belgium. All translations not otherwise attributed are courtesy of the author.