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On view

Cabinet

Date: 1865-1875
Medium: Ebonized cherry, eastern white pine, mahogany, tulipwood, amaranth, bird's-eye maple, marquetry of various woods, gilded bronze, unidentified metal, gilding
Dimensions:
Overall: 87 × 52 1/4 × 20 3/8in. (221 × 132.7 × 51.8cm)
Signed: Dealer noted 'the makers' name 'Pottier and Stymus' is very faintly and partly visible on the left side of the case.' This 'mark' was not apparent to the curator or conservator.
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 92.40.A-H
Label Text
The imposing scale and high-quality workmanship of this drawing room cabinet disclosed the wealth of its owner. It is a major example from a distinctive line of Franco-American furniture made by leading New York City cabinetmakers in the 1860s. The style of the cabinet combines classical motifs (urns, swags, egg-and-dart trim, and mythological elements) with Renaissance and Baroque stylistic designs.

Color plays an important role in the overall visual effect of the cabinet. Because much of the early work with ebony (a dark, heavy, tropical hardwood) took place in France, cabinetmaking became known as ébénisterie and cabinetmakers became ébénistes. The ebonized surface (light wood stained and polished to imitate ebony) on this cabinet serves as a visual link to traditional French ébénisterie and its reputation for excellence.


Text Entries

This colorful and imposing drawing room cabinet beautifully documents and displays the assertive visual qualities of Gilded Age America. Although its manufacturer is not now known, the object is a major example of a distinctive line of Franco-American furniture purveyed by New York’s leading cabinetmakers in the decade of the 1860s.(1) Léon Marcotte, Pottier & Stymus, Alexander Roux, and Herter Brothers are potential candidates for maker of this piece, or it may have been produced by one of the many lesser-known firms listed in city business directories of the period.(2) Until a systematic analysis of major examples of furniture in this manner appears, attributions remain tentative.(3)

The style of this cabinet is easily recognized but not so easily named.(4) It is characterized by an eclectic combination of classical or classicizing features filtered through Renaissance, baroque, and néo-grec lenses. Preceded by the richly sculptural and typically curvilinear mode of midcentury and followed by the reductive rectilinearity of the English Reform movement, the style occupies and exemplifies a pivotal historical moment. It not only demonstrates yet another efflorescence of the classical but also represents the figurative high-water mark of workmanship, visual complexity, and what might be called the courtly paradigm in nineteenth- century America.(5)

Like the rest of the group of objects to which it belongs, this cabinet celebrates and emulates the scale, splendor, and high-quality workmanship associated with aristocratic French and Continental furnishings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Embodying the assumption that appropriate models for nineteenth-century living could be found in the aristocratic past, the cabinet is an example of top-down diffusion. The political implications of the style were challenged at the time of its manufacture by democrats and populists and later by English reform and arts and crafts advocates.(6)

Within the aesthetic and ideological system that produced this cabinet, more is definitely better, particularly when the many components of an object display erudition and exemplary execution. Informed historical references and paraphrases were prized and, as in architecture in the same manner, outstanding objects were those that combined forceful massing of their major features and a highly complex composition with exquisite workmanship.(7) The most notable features of the composition on this cabinet are the concave semicylindrical niches, the intricate marquetry of the central door that dominates the upper section, and the exceptional quality of the rich and diverse ornamentation that adorns most of the other surfaces.(8)

Color plays an important role here. Like many aspects of this cabinet, it is historically referential.

Gold has obvious courtly associations, as does the use of marquetry and contrasting woods. Less apparently meaningful, but perhaps more significant, are the extensive ebonized surfaces of the object. Black not only provides the strongest possible foil for gilt surfaces and for light-colored woods but also evokes the origins of modern cabinetmaking. The importation of ebony into seventeenth-century Europe created a ripple effect that eventually and irrevocably transformed furnituremaking throughout the western world. Ebony was beautiful to look at but difficult to work. Furniture makers found that it was best used in thin sheets—or veneers——over secondary woods. Veneering subsequently became the basis of cabinetmaking. Because much of the early experimentation with ebony took place in France, cabinetmaking became ébénisterie, and cabinetmakers became ébénistes. The ebonized surfaces of theMWPI cabinet serve as visual links to traditional French ébénisterie and its reputation for excellence.(9)

Cultural change, the doctrines and dogmas of passing movements in the arts, and an increasing awareness of the ideologies often embodied in art and design have affected latter-day assessments of objects like this cabinet. Its celebration of ornament and its historical references have offended modernists, while its overt elitism has sometimes upset egalitarians. In the late years of the twentieth century, however, when traditional education in the arts and humanities is on the wane and fine workmanship in architecture and furnishings is largely a thing of the past, many people once again find the art historical references and dazzling workmanship of this cabinet profoundly appealing.(10)

 Essay by Kenneth L. Ames

1. A similar cabinet, also of unknown manufacture, is owned by the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. The placement and design of key elements of each cabinet are identical, although the two differ in many details. Measurements, tracings, or construction features of the Ford Museum and MWPI cabinets have not been compared to determine if the cabinets were produced in the same shop.

2. Much of Marcotte's known furniture is more frilly grounded in historical antecedents than this flamboyantly inventive cabinet. Roux’s best-known work is in earlier styles. While Herter Brothers’ furniture displays similar design motifs, nothing illustrated in Katherine S. Howe, Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Catherine Hoover Voorsanger et al., Herter Brothers: Furniture and Interiors for a Gilded Age (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1994) suggests authorship of the MWPI cabinet. The firm of Pottier & Stymus remains a possibility. The partnership may have provided some of the furnishings for the A. T. Stewart House in New York (1869), many of which are in a style close to that of the MWPI cabinet. For discussion and images, sec Jay E. Cantor, “A Monument of Trade: A. T. Stewart and the Rise of the Millionaire’s Mansion in New York," Winterthur Portfolio 10 (1975): 165-97.

3. The most extensive treatment of furniture in this manner, Howe et al., Herter Brothers, describes its characteristics and origins in some detail (esp. pp. 22-77). Looking primarily at Herter furniture, however, provides little basis for distinguishing the work of competing firms in New York or elsewhere.

4. The style is conventionally described as “Renaissance revival,” a too-simple term that masks its complexity. It could more accurately be termed “mannerist revival.“ Nineteenth-century Boston- based Anglophile designer and writer Charles Wyllys Elliott had his own names for this furniture. In “Household Art,“ he called it the “German-French Roman-Greek style” and, less approvingly, the “German-French-bastard style" (The Art Journal 1 [1875]: 299). Neither of these terms is likely to catch on today, although Elliott's identification of the German aspect of this furniture is significant. As Howe et al. point out in Herter Brothers, the style was largely French in inspiration but was often created and, presumably, influenced by German designers and artisans.

5. For a discussion of the courtly paradigm, see Kenneth L. Ames, Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), esp. pp. 87-88, 93-95.

6. See, for example, the famous passage comparing the relative appropriateness of upscale and mid-level sideboards for households in republican America in Benjamin Silliman Jr. and C. R. Goodrich, eds., The World of Science, Art, and Industry Illustrated: From Examples in the New-York Exhibition, 1853-54 (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1854), p. 185.

7. Twentieth-century discussions of furniture of this era comment on its historicizing and eclectic aspects but often fail to acknowledge its creative dimension. Implicit here, it seems to me, is an assumption that cabinetmakers are less imaginative (lesser artists?) than painters and architects, an assumption not borne out by close study of American and European objects. Like painting and architecture of the same era, American furniture often reveals considerable design innovation, even if the design vocabulary is the same as that used in Europe. American objects sometimes replicate European models but more often do not.

8. Many of the intricate or unusual features of the MWPI cabinet are not immediately apparent. Among them are doors on the sides of the upper section that provide access to small recesses behind the concave niches.

9. The form of the cabinet is also historically referential, traceable through French cabinets-on-stand of the seventeenth century to likely prototypes in the style of Henri II. For examples, see Pierre Kjellherg, Le meuble Francais et Europeen du moyen age a nos jours (Paris: Les Editions de l’Amateur, 1991), pp. 29-31.

10. See, for instance, Allan David Bloom’s best-selling The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987).