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Étagère

On view

Étagère

Date: 1850-1860
Medium: Rosewood, black walnut, white oak, basswood, black ash, glass
Dimensions:
Overall: 109 1/2 × 69 5/8 × 24 3/4in. (278.1 × 176.8 × 62.9cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 59.118
Label Text
Étagères were desirable adjuncts in fashionable, mid-nineteenth-century homes. A flattering complement to the taste and wealth of its owner, the étagère or whatnot, as it was sometimes called, was, according to a cabinetmakers' handbook, a "piece of furniture which serves occasional or incidental use, and belongs, indifferently to the dining-room, drawing-room, or parlor." Most étagères are heavily decorated monuments to lavish display. Mirrored backs enhance the impact of the artifacts exhibited on the shelves.

This étagère adheres to French design precepts--the lower section, for example, is derived from mid-eighteenth-century Parisian console tables and their nineteenth-century interpretations. Rosewood was the favored wood for such ostentatious furniture.

Text Entries

Etageres were desirable adjuncts to fashionable mid-nineteenth-century homes. A flattering complement to the taste and wealth of its owners, the étagere or whatnot, as it was sometimes called, was “a piece of furniture which serves occasional or incidental use, and belongs, indifferently to the dining-room, drawing-room, or parlour.”(1) Although relatively simple examples are known, most étageres are heavily decorated monuments to lavish display with mirrored backs to enhance the impact of the artifacts exhibited on them. The designer and architect Andrew Jackson Downing believed that nothingbespoke a householder’s taste and status as much as a “handsome etagere, of French design, suitable for the drawing room of a villa. In the centre is a handsome mirror, on either side of which are shelves for articles of virtu—bouquets of flowers, scientific curiosities, or whatever else of this kind the owner may indulge his taste in.”(2)

The MWPI étagere adheres to French design precepts. Its lower section, with four voluptuously curved and carved legs, ultimately derives its overall form, scale, and naturalistic decoration from mid—eighteenth-century Parisian console tables and their nineteenth-century interpretations.(3) The upper section of this étagere does not have an eighteenth-century prototype. But, like the base, it has a curvilinear outline embellished with deeply carved grape clusters, flowers, leaves, and tendrils, and it is made of solid and laminated rosewood.(4) Rosewood was the favored wood for such ostentatious objects, because as one cabinetmaker’s guide put it, it was “likely to furnish a permanently fashionable material for drawing-room furniture. Besides being intrinsically beautiful, it contrasts admirably with the materials usually employed in drapery.”(5)

Etageres of this type are often attributed to the renowned John Henry Belter of New York City because of his innovative use of laminated rosewood. While New York is the probable place of origin for this étagere, it may have been made by any one of the fine furniture makers working there during the mid-nineteenth century. An étagere closely related in form, material, and design to the MWPI example, for instance, was among the many pieces of furniture by the Brooklyn cabinet-maker Thomas Brooks displayed at the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, commonly called the Crystal Palace exhibition, in 1853 in New York City. The catalogue of the exposition describes the étagère as having been “elaborately and elegantly carved in rosewood after the designs of G. Herter. Ornamental furniture, particularly of the kind of which this piece is an example, is represented extensively in the Crystal Palace. Our exhibitors have a tendency to ostentation, or presume that this will be the feeling on the part of visitors. We regret that some of this display had not been replaced by furniture better suited to our daily wants and necessities.”(6) Other New York cabinetmakers who were capable of making furniture of this quality include Alexander Roux, John and Joseph Meeks, and Charles A. Baudouine. Indicating the widespread popularity of the rococo-revival style, similar products were made in Philadelphia by Gottlieb Vollmer, in Boston by George Croome, and as far west as Cincinnati, Ohio, by the firm of Robert Mitchell and Frederick Rammelsberg. Because of the many talented craftsmen working in this mode, accurate attribution of this and other unlabeled étageres awaits the discovery of signed or labeled examples.(7)

 Essay by Donald L. Fennimore

1. Blackie and Son, The Cabinet Makers Assistant (London, 1853), pp. 50, 51.

2. Andrew Jackson Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses (New York: D. Appleton, 1850), p. 456. An étagére is pictured in the context of an elaborate New York City parlor in Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-room Companion, Nov. ll, 1854.

3. For comparable French console tables, see Pierre Kjellberg, Le Meuble Francais (Paris: Les Editions de l’Arnateur, 1991), pp. 187-90, and Bill G. B. Pallot, The Art of the Chair in Eighteenth-Century France (Paris: ACR, 1989), pp. 152, 154, 155.An informative design for a mid-nineteenth-century French console table in this style, drawn and published by the Parisian cabinetmaker Célestin Allard about 1855, can be seen in Denise Ledoux-Lebard, Les ébénistes du XIXe siecle, 1795-1889: Iieurs oeuvres et leurs marques (Paris: Les editions de l‘Amateur, 1989), p. 28.

4. The laminated components include the carved and pierced skirts under the shelves of both sections.

5. Blackie and Son, The Cabinet Makers Assistant, p. 26.

6. B. Silliman Jr. and C. R. Goodrich, eds., The World of Science, Art, and Industry (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1854), p. 19.

7. Other unsigned étagéres that appear to be closely related to this example are in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, Minn., and the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum, Washington, D.C. A third is illustrated in a Richard and Eileen Dubrow advertisement in Antiques 121, no. 5 (May 1982): 1086; and a fourth is in Pettigrew Auction Co., Important Two Day Estates Auction in Colorado Springs, sale cat. (Colorado Springs, Colo., Apr. 26-27, 1997), lot 166.