The bee apparently was the oldest emblem of the sovereigns of France and symbolized immortality and resurrection. But Napoleon Bonaparte with his glorious talent for self-invention and legendary personal style appropriated the bee for use on his own insignia, reinscribing it with the notion of the hive, of The Republic with himself at the head. (I hadn’t really thought of Napoleon as Queen Bee before and nor I imagine had he.)
Today, the motif is a gift to interior designers to represent the Empire style. I stayed in a nouveau-Empire themed hotel the other day and couldn’t help noticing the scatter cushions made of black silk woven with these pretty golden insects. Made me feel tres Josephine pour un moment.
The top image comes from an absolutely lush blog called Trouvais (taken from the book 'Fabrics: The Decorative Art of Textiles' by Caroline Lebeau); read more about Napoleon's imperial mantle here; last image from Trouvais. I do recommend it.
To figure out the difference between terms like neo-classical, regency, empire and directoire visit design historian Emily Evans Eerdmans blog here.
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And now, since Spring has finally arrived, with its heavy-scented blossoms I can present Emma Kirkby singing Where The Bee Sucks There Suck I. (For some unaccountable reason this clip starts with some hugely inappropriate remarks but please ignore them because Kirkby's is my favourite version and it is utterly delightful.)
Where the bee sucks, there suck I; In a cowslip's bell I lie; There I couch when owls do cry. On the bat's back I do fly. After summer merrily, merrily shall I live now. Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.
(From 'The Tempest', words spoken by Ariel after he is set free by Prospero.)