What is Directoire?
Directoire was a brief transitional period in decorative arts, fashion and, primarily, furniture (our focus). It takes its name from the French Revolutionary Government known as the Directory that rose to power following the Reign of Terror in 1794. Essentially it is the French furniture style of the French Revolution and ran roughly between 1795-1799. Often it is lumped into the Louis XVI style that preceded it and the Empire style that followed it.
Although the Directoire style was rather quickly succeeded in France by the stiffer, martial, more masculine and more elaborate Empire style, other nations felt its influence. It impacted the early Regency style in England, the elegance of Duncan Phyfe and Lannuier here in the US, and the Gustavian furniture in Scandinavia.
The Directoire style reflects its austere wartime roots. While it shares the Neoclassical forms of its predecessor, the Louis XVI style, gone is the sumptuous regality of that prior era.
Directoire furniture is smaller in scale and uses less costly materials. Ornamentation is minimal. It relies on veneers and inlays of wood, applied brass and, sometimes, decorative painting. The republicanism of the period is reflected in the popularity of Greco-Roman forms and Etruscan-animal motifs. Think klismo style chairs with gently tapering legs adopted from animal forms like the hoof. In addition, look for clasped hands and the oak leaf, other symbols of the Revolution.
Today, Directoire’s restraint is considered elegant and graceful. Furniture from the period is now highly desirable. It’s hard to believe that such a bloody time could engender such a refined and sophisticated style.
While perhaps best known as Napoleon’s designers during the Empire period, Charles Percier (1764–1838) and Pier François Léonard Fontaine (1762–1853) initially established the Directoire style. Jacques-Louis David, was a prominent artist of the period and closely aligned with Robespierre.
David’s painting of the French socialite, Juliette Recamier, portrayed the most iconic piece of Directoire furniture, the recamier, named after her. Intrigue and scandal surrounded Juliette Recamier. She was rumored to be married off to her natural father, a financier to Napoleon, so that he would have an heir. We do not know if they consummated the marriage.
With that gossipy back story, David’s portrait shows Juliette Recamier reclining barefoot on a daybed with scrollings sides and finely tapered legs, wearing a Grecian-like garment. The daybed became an instant classic with variations produced throughout the ages, including today.
Have a look at some examples of furniture from the period.
Sharp eyes and eager learners will observe that curule chairs and stools, and the gueridon table, in particular the campaign type, where popular forms during the period. Bergeres and fauteuils (do you know the difference?) remained comfy chair styles.
Photo credits: First portrait, Madame Raymond de Verninac by Jacques-Louis David, with clothes and chair in Directoire style. Painting by an unknown artist from the Directoire period. Madame Récamier painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1800. Collage: day bed, desk, chairs, interior with sofa and table, clock, reclaimer from the Smithsonian table. Collage: grey chairs, armoire, green interior from Elle Decor, barrel back chair, Drawing room, chandelier, curule legged chairs, sofa and chairs, commode. Collage:sofa, desk, desk, bergere, directoire daybed in blue interior from House Beautiful, table, console, console, daybed, curule stool