Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821, Emperor 1804-14, 1815) revitalized the carpet industry during his reign and the First Empire was a period of great prosperity and productivity at the Savonnerie, Beauvais, Aubusson and Tournai workshops. The decree of 28 Floréal XII (1803) allowed Napoleon to use and redecorate the Royal Palaces, including the Tuileries, Saint-Cloud, Versailles, Compiègne and Fontainebleau and with that came a great need for floor coverings (see Floret, E., Great Carpets of the World, 1996, p. 253). In addition to repurposing 17th and 18th century carpets, many in fragmentary condition, a Royal decree in 1804 recommenced carpet production at the Savonnerie ateliers under the orders of ‘l’Intendant général de la Maison de l’Empereur’ (see Jarry, M., The Carpets of the Manufactory de la Savonnerie, 1996, p. 15). The Emperor commissioned carpets in the grand interior style he favored, promoted and created by his preferred architects and interior designers Percier and Fontaine who are now synonymous with the Empire Style.
Tournai, now in current day Belgium, was part of the French Empire during Napoleon’s reign and has a long weaving history, most known for its tapestries and moquette carpets. In 1756, Piat Lefebvre (1722-1801) joined his father-in-law’s cloth manufactory and diversified the business by incorporating knotted-pile carpet weaving into their offerings. During Lefebvre’s time, the workshop expanded, renamed itself Piat Lefebvre et Fils, and by 1783 had fifty-four looms and eight hundred employees (see Sherrill, S., Carpets and Rugs of Europe and America, 1996, p. 112). After his death, his nephew, Léopold-Henri-Joseph Lefebvre (d.1844), and his brothers took over the business which flourished during the first part of the 19th century due to the patronage of Napoleon.
Paul Marmottan (1856-1932), the art historian and collector whose First Empire collection of decorative arts became the foundation of the Marmottan Museum of Paris, purchased one hundred ink and gouache maquettes (cartoons) in 1908 from a dealer in Versailles. The group, dating from 1807-1810, now in the Marmottan Museum collection, is attributed to Piat Lefebvre et Fils in Tournai and establishes an important archive for attributing specific Empire carpets to Tournai rather than to Savonnerie. Both Tournai and Savonnerie carpets from this period use similar techniques, designs and palettes and it can be difficult to distinguish one from the other. Savonnerie carpets frequently employ dizaine warps, a technique where every tenth warp is a colored thread, generally brown; while it is generally believed that Tournai carpets do not exhibit this feature. However, the present example has dizaine warps so further study is needed to discover if Tournai carpets on occasion made use of these counting warps.
The Tournai carpet maquettes for the most part depict a quarter or half of the future carpet with the medallion in full size. The drawing for this carpet shows a quarter of the carpet with a lyre and an element of the medallion fully designed (see Floret, E., Tapis D’Empire: Maquettes de la Collection Marmottan, 2004, p. 39, no. 14). The drawing also includes a narrow sky-blue border of rosettes and a darker leaf scroll outer border that are lacking on this example and it is possible that this carpet originally included a wider border structure.
The drawing of this carpet is titled ‘civile’ classifying it as part of the ‘cohortes’ series. The series honors Napoleon’s chief military and civilian lieutenants who are part of his Legion of Honor, created in 1802, to head the sixteen administrative divisions of the country, called cohortes, named after the army units of ancient Rome. These Legion of Honor carpets were woven at the Savonnerie for Napoleon’s Grand Cabinet de Travail at the Tuileries, in Aubusson for the emperor’s bedroom at Fontainebleau and by Piat Lefebvre et Fils in Tournai for the Grand Cabinet de Travail at Saint-Cloud (op.cit., Sherrill, p. 114 and pl. 121). It is unknown for whom or for where this carpet was commissioned but it is very likely that it was intended for an important room in one of Napoleon’s palaces.
Most of the Tournai carpet drawings are attributed to the architect Jacques-Louis de La Hamayde de Saint-Ange (1780-1860) but others are ascribed to Charles Percier (1764-1838), Jean Démosthène Dugourc (1749-1825), Bruno Renard (1781-1861) or as in this case, they are anonymous. However, many of the warlike emblems embedded in this carpet: helmets, shields, caducées, lictors’ fasces, lyres and laurel wreaths, can be found on carpets from the same period designed by Saint-Ange, a student of Percier. Saint-Ange was very active during the second half of the First Empire and is responsible for many of the robust and colorful Empire Savonnerie and Tournai carpets that survive to this day. A carpet in the Collection Mobilier National, Paris, also from the ‘cohortes’ series called “Tapis des Cohortes” and made for le Cabinet de l’Empereur aux Tuileries depicts the attributes of the sixteen cohorts in the same fashion as the military motifs in our carpet. However, this Cohortes carpet is more vibrant and replete with dense decorations (op.cit., Jarry, p. 39, fig. 62). Another carpet designed by Saint-Ange for the Grande Chambre àCoucher de l’Empereur at the Tuileries, now in the Collection Mobilier National, Paris, features a center medallion with similar military attributes of armor, shields and helmets but in a bolder fashion (op. cit., Jarry, p. 38 and fig. 60).
Charles Percier both designed carpets and directed orders for carpets for the Palaces requiring new décor after the destruction from the Revolution. The present carpet, with its fan rosette medallion enclosing Napoleonic attributes, refined rinceaux decoration of the field and unusual simple honeysuckle blossom border recall other carpets known to have been designed by Percier. A very similar First Empire example designed by Percier is in the Collection of Musée National de Malmaison and shares an identical layout with square medallions in each corner of the field, delicate field decoration, a narrow inner decorative border and a wide outer border of a single, uncluttered decorative element (op.cit., Jarry, p. 38 and fig. 59). Another carpet designed by Percier in the Collection Mobiler National woven in 1804, has a comparable overall sensibility with restrained decoration in the medallion and field with square compartments in each corner in muted colors (GMT-2091-000).
It is important to keep in mind that there was fluidity and collaboration between designers and workshops at this time and that their main goal was of a unified message: Napoleon’s political power, military might, economic strength and right to the French throne was legitimate and unquestioned. According to Madeleine Jarry (The Carpets of Aubusson, 1969, pp. 32-37), an 1813 Royal inventory lists 421 carpets in seven of Napoleon’s palaces, including 32 Savonneries, 116 Aubusson and 273 moquette and embroidered carpets. Many of the surviving First Empire carpets remain in the Collection Mobilier National and other public institutions, particularly in France, making this carpet a rare example left in private hands.