Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte died 200 years ago last week. He is one of few military leaders who left an artistic legacy that is recognisable and influential, the Empire Style. But he didn’t create it himself. It was crested for him by a couple of French architects and designers who are regarded by many as the original gay designer couple. I mentioned them only briefly in my recent Flower Power article “A Divine Headdress”. They are Charles Percier (1764-1838) and Pierre Fontaine (1762-1853).
Pierre Fontaine was the elder and longest lived of the two. He was born in Pontoise, to the north-west of Paris, into a middle-class family of architects and designers. His father, also called Pierre, was the engineer of the fountains and hydraulic system at the Château de L’Isle-Adam, home of the Prince of Conti (grandson of the Prince of Conti who was elected King of Poland-Lithuania).
Young Pierre was 16 years old when he went with his father to work at the chateau, which was just 10 kilometres from Pontoise. Pierre’s keen interest and natural ability at architecture was noticed by the chief architect of the fountain project and he helped to expand Pierre’s experience by allowing him to copy some of the designs and to join the workmen in the construction work.
In 1779 Pierre went to Paris to study at the Académie Royale d’Architecture. Pierre came second in the Prix de Rome in 1785. This was a competition for the Académie students which offered a five-year scholarship in Rome to the winner. Although he didn’t win in 1785 Pierre was awarded the scholarship in 1787 when the awarding of that year’s prize was delayed. Interestingly, his design that can second was for a sepulchral monument for the kings of France (below). It was influenced by the design for Isaac Newton’s cenotaph, about which I wrote in March.
It was while Pierre was at the Académie that he met Charles Percier who went on to win the Prix de Rome in 1786, the year between Pierre coming second and him being awarded the Rome scholarship.
Charles Percier had a very different upbringing to that of Pierre Fontaine. His mother Marie-Jeanne was a seamstress and laundrywoman and his father Denis was a gate-keeper, but Charles’ childhood was anything but typically working-class. Both of his parents worked for the French royal family. His mother worked for Queen Marie Antoinette and his father worked at the moat bridge near the Tuileries, the palace in Paris.
Charles, like Pierre, showed artistic talents as a child. He could draw the uniforms of the palace guards and soldiers in perfect detail, and he was soon put into the classes of the palace art tutor. This led to him being enrolled into the Ecole Royales Gratuite de Desins at the age of just 7. This was a free school for children from modest or poor backgrounds who had a shown clear aptitude for art and design. Charles soon gained a reputation as a skilled draftsman, even before he entered the Académie Royale d’Architecture at the age of 15.
Even though Percier and Fontaine, as the duo later became known, as if a single entity, met at the Académie it was only when they both began studying in Rome that they started working together. They shared a studio and travelled around the region concentrating on the classical architecture. The neo-classical style was all the rage in Europe and Percier and Fontaine would go on to develop it further. They were so inseparable that fellow students called them “the Two Etruscans”, the Etruscans being the civilisation that evolved into ancient Roman.
Percier and Fontaine made a pact in Rome based on mutual respect and confidence. They pledged to stay single and never marry. It is this pact that forms the basis of the idea that they were, or became, a “gay” couple as we would recognise today.
All was going well in Rome. Then in 1789 the French Revolution threw Fontaine’s life into turmoil. His parents, both reliant on royal employment, were out of work and penniless. Fontaine returned to Paris to try to support them. Percier remained in Rome, but soon hostility towards the French forced him to return to Paris also and he moved in with Fontaine.
Their architectural designs kept them employed until 1792 when Percier was offered the job of scenery designer and supervisor at the Paris Opera. Fontaine, who had recently moved to England to get away from the Revolution, was brought back to France by Percier who insisted that if he was to take the post at the Paris Opera then Fontaine must be appointed with him.
During their four years at the opera Percier and Fontaine continued to work of other projects. This brought them to the attention of one of their neighbours, none other than Josephine Bonaparte, the wife of Napoleon (who had yet to be declared emperor). Together, Percier and Fontaine were engaged to work on Josephine’s residence, the Château de Malmaison outside Paris.
At the start of the project they met Napoleon himself. Napoleon soon became a huge fan of their work and employed them to redecorate the Hôtel des Invalides, a veteran’s home that had been damaged during the Revolution. The success of both projects led Napoleon to appoint Fontaine as official government architect. In a reciprocal manner to the opera position Fontaine said he wouldn’t do it unless Percier was appointed with him.
Between 1801 and 1814, when the post of government architect was abolished and the post of Paris city architect was created, Percier and Fontaine worked on most of the famous buildings that are still familiar to us today – the Louvre, Fontainbleau, Versailles, the Élysée Palace and the Tuileries.
Napoleon dismissed Percier in 1804, which upset and offended Fontaine, but the two continued to work together and Percier was also able to pursue other projects.
Although Fontaine kept to the pact he and Percier made in Rome to remain unmarried he fathered an illegitimate daughter by Sophie Depuis, an artist he and Percier employed to colour the illustrated plates of one of the books they wrote on architecture.
Charles Percier died in 1838 and left Fontaine grief-stricken. Fontaine continued to work as Paris city architect and interior designer at the Louvre and Tuileries until he resigned at the age of 86. He was buried with Percier and another close associate, Clarles-Louis Bernier (1755-1830), who worked with them at the Paris Opera and the Louvre. Their joint grave monument was designed by Fontaine.
Percier and Fontaine perfected the artistic style that became known to us as Empire Style. Evolving from the previously popular Directoire and Ne-Classical styles it became very distinctive. Even when Egyptian elements crept in, Empire Style remained the style that defined the Napoleonic era.