The Savonnerie manufactory was founded on January 4, 1608 when Henri IV and his superintendent of finances, Maximilien de Bethune, duc de Sully, granted Pierre Dupont space to set up a workshop below the Grand Gallerie of the Louvre in order to stop the drain on the French economy caused by importing carpets from India and Turkey. The manufactory was placed under royal protection and a second workshop was set up in a former soap factory, or 'savonnerie', in Chaillott, a village near Paris. Savonnerie carpets were woven almost exclusively for the French royal court's own use or were given as diplomatic gifts by the King. The production of carpets flourished in France for nearly two centuries before coming to a nearly complete halt during the French Revolution: the revolutionaries thought of carpets such as those woven at the Savonnerie as the luxurious trappings of a decadent and decaying society. Nonetheless, the Directoire used existing carpets, especially those commissioned by Louis XIV, for themselves and to repay debts incurred by the Revolution, after duly cutting out royal emblems such as crowns and fleurs-de-lis.
It was Napoleon who revitalized the carpet industry. The decree of 28 Florail XII (1803) allowed Napoleon to use and redecorate the royal palaces (see Floret, E., Great Carpets of the World, 1996, p. 253). In ordering Savonnerie ateliers to recommence production, Napoleon meant to aid the economy and society of France. The emperor commissioned carpets in the grand interior style he favored, the consciously archaeological version of the neoclassical promoted by C. Percier and P. Fontaine in their guide Recueil de decorations intrieures (1801).
The present example, with its central rosette medallion, stars, scrolls and swans, attest to the period's identification with classical antiquity and represents the fascination of Napoleon's milieu with the recent archeological discoveries in Greece and Rome, which allowed them to associate the Empire with the glorious ancient past. With its exquisite design and exceptional quality, the present carpet is one of the more restrained examples of this period; its overall quietness, even femininity, in contrast to the military trophies and imperial emblems seen on other examples from the period, suggest that it was most likely used in living quarters. The dark rose field with central rosette surrounded by leaves and scrolling vines encircled by a ring of stars and lilac garland is typical of First Empire neoclassicism; here, the lilac garland issues unusually naturalistic sunflowers within a large ivory-colored roundel and delicate plumed swans perch in the four corners, with the entire design framed by a row of oak leaves and acorns within a narrow, elegant wave border. Swans were a symbol of the Empress Josephine; their plumes here are remarkable. The overall look of the carpet is one of extreme delicacy and refinement.
The style of drawing and many of the motifs, such as the scrolls around the rosettes and the wave border, recall the work of Jacques-Louis de la Hamayde de Saint-Ange-Desmaison, known as Saint-Ange (1780-1860). Saint-Ange was probably the most popular and influential carpet designer during the late Empire and Restauration period. After studying with the French designers Percier and Fontaine, he eventually became the primary designer for the Mobilier Imperial, designing not only carpets but even porcelain for Sèvres. The designs of Saint-Ange were commonly emulated by other designers and manufacturers, including Aubusson, Sallandrouze and Beauvais. For watercolors of carpet designs by Saint-Ange with similar motifs including stars, swans and wave border see Elisabeth Floret, 'Le renouveau du tapis francais sous l'Empire' in Les Tapis D'Empire, Norma Editions, Paris, 2003. For further reading on Savonnerie please see Sherrill, Sarah B.,Carpets and Rugs of Europe and America, New York, 1996.