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Side Chair

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Side Chair

Date: 1805-1830
Medium: Mahogany, soft maple, reproduction upholstery (black)
Overall: 32 1/8 x 18 1/2 x 18 5/8in. (81.6 x 47 x 47.3cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 60.315.1-2
Label Text
Compared with earlier neoclassical objects, those produced in the Empire style are more historically correct interpretations of the ancient past. These two chairs present a classic New York interpretation of the ancient Greek klismos form. At the time they were made they were described as "scroll back" side chairs. The characteristic, graceful, inward sweep-extending from the back and down through the seat and front legs-probably had its genesis in classical sources such as vase paintings and grave stelae. Less commonly found features on chairs such as these are a reeded front seat rail and a scrolled strapwork splat.
Text Entries

The empire Style, appropriately referred to as “Grecian” at the time it was introduced, came to America through the English-trained architect Benjamin H. Latrobe (1764-1820).(1) Compared with neoclassicism, it was a more historically correct interpretation of the ancient past and one deemed appropriate for the emerging republic. Even after Americans declared their political independence from England, they continued to emulate English culture and to purchase English manufactured goods for their homes. Throughout the Grecian period London publications influenced American decorative arts. The London Chair-Makers’ and Carvers ’Book of Prices (1802), Thomas Sheraton’s Cabinet Dictionary (1803), Thomas Hope’s Influential Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807), and Rudolph Ackermann’s monthly series The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics (begun 1809) coincide with the earliest American manifestations of this new fashion.(2)

In New York the first hint of the style is perceptible as early as 1807 in a set of chairs supplied to the merchant William Bayard by Duncan Phyfe (1768-1854), the city’s preeminent cabinetmaker. These mahogany chairs retain neoclassical elements; their “sprung” legs and scrolled backs, however, signify the introduction of a more archaeologically correct taste.(3) Shortly thereafter, a more fully developed interpretation, one patterned after the ancient klismos chair, became the requisite form of seating furniture in the most fashionable households. Characterized by gracefully inward curving front and rear legs, the chair had its genesis in classical sources, probably vase paintings or sculpted stelae.(4)

The MWPI side chairs are classic New York interpretations of the klismos form. At the time they were made they were described as “scroll-back” side chairs. Incorporated into the finest examples, such as these, are realistic carvings of animal paws, acanthus leaves, and ornamental reliefs; paired cornucopias embellish the crest rail. A less commonly found feature on these chairs is the reeded front seat rail, which corresponds to the continuous seat rails and stiles. These chairs also have graceful, scrolled strapwork splats in place of the more usual lyre, harp, or curule shapes. This alternative may be best understood as a combination of the Grecian curule with a tripartite element that is reminiscent of the trio of plumes often seen on the backs of neoclassical-style New York chairs (see cat. no. 1). This same distinctive splat embellishes a set of eight matching side chairs now in a private collection; perhaps the MWPI side chairs were originally part of that suite.(5)

The number of New York City chairs known from this period and the range of discrete variations that exist among them are indicative of the phenomenal growth in the city’s cabinet trade during this dynamic era. Between 1800 and 1810 New York’s population increased by more than 50 percent, making it the most populous city in the young nation. Scholars have habitually assigned scroll- back chairs of this type to Duncan Phyfe’s prominent Fulton Street shop, purportedly the largest and finest establishment in early nineteenth-century New York. Phyfe’s shop certainly produced similar examples, but the design was widely admired, and scores of cabinet- makers throughout the city fashioned chairs of this type. Attribution of scroll-back chairs to a specific artisan or shop is therefore complicated, if not impossible.(6)

Exactly what role Duncan Phyfe played in the development of the Grecian style in early nineteenth- century New York is not clear. In the past, decorative arts scholars have credited him with its introduction. Some enthusiasts have suggested that Phyfe originated the style and have named it after him, despite the fact that there is no documentation to support their lofty claims. What can be safely inferred from contemporary records is that Duncan Phyfe’s cabinet shop was synonymous with a standard of excellence admired in his day by clientele and competitors alike.(7)

Essay by Michael K. Brown

1. Talbot F. Hamlin, Benjamin Henry Latrobe (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955).

2. The London Chair-Makers’ and Carvers’ Book of Prices (London: Committee of Chair-Manufacturers and Journeymen, 1802); Thomas Sheraton, The Cabinet Dictionary (London, W. Smith, 1803; reprint, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970); Thomas Hope, Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1807; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1971). Hope's volume was advertised in the Jan. 4, 1819, issue of the New York Evening Post. Rudolph Ackermann, The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics (London: R. Ackermann, 1809-28). Copies of The Repository were advertised in the Nov. 11, 1819, and Feb. 27, 1821, issues of the New York Evening Post as being available at the Minerva Circulating Library and Book and Stationery Store and at Goodrich’s Library, respectively.

3. Charles F. Montgomery, American Furniture: The Federal Period (New York: Viking Press, 1966), pp. 117-21.

4. In 1808 Latrobe supplied a suite of Grecian furniture for William Waln‘s Philadelphia house, for which Latrobe was the architect. The suite is among the earliest and most visually appealing American furniture in this style. The following year he designed a related suite intended for the White House. For further information on these important commissions, see Jack L. Lindsey, “An Early Latrobe Furniture Commission," Antiques 139, no. 1 (January 1991): 208-19. In Boston, Samuel Gragg’s "elastic" chair, patented in 1808, reproduced the klismos shape and occasionally incorporated animal paw feet; see Patricia E. Kane, “Samuel Gragg: His Bentwood Fancy Chairs,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin 33, no. 2 (Autumn 1971): 26-37.

5. This set of chairs is recorded in Sotheby’s, Fine Americana, sale cat. (Sept. 26, 1981), lot 441. The MWPI side chairs are reproduced in Joseph Aronson, The Encyclopedia of Furniture (New York: Crown Publishers, 1965), p. 103, no. 309.

6. The well-known watercolor depicting Phyfe's Fulton Street cabinet shop and showrooms incorporates a similar side chair, one with a lyre back, being shown and discussed in one of the doorways. A detail is reproduced in Morrison H. Heckscher, “Duncan Phyfe, Revisitus,” Antiques 151, no. 1 (January 1997): 238. Another similar chair appears in a sketch attributed to Phyfe and is reproduced in Montgomery, American Furniture, pp. 126-27, no. 72a. Montgomery states that such a chair could be ordered with an upholstered slip seat for $23 or with a cane bottom and an accompanying cushion for $25. The only known lyre-back chairs that can be associated with Phyfe's shop are a set believed to be those listed on Phyfe’s 1816 bill to James Lefferts Brinckerhoff, a New York City merchant, and discussed by Jeanne Vibert Sloane in “A Duncan Phyfe Bill and the Furniture It Documents,” Antiques 131, no. 5 (May 1987): 1106-13.

7. Marilyn A. Johnson found that Phyfe’s New York contemporaries recognized him as an arbiter of style and that other cabinetmakers analyzed and carefully copied items produced in Phyfe’s shop. See her “John Hewitt, Cabinetmaker,” Winterthur Portfolio 4 (1968): 185-205. Phyfe purchased finished cabinet goods from Fenwick Lyell between 1805 and 1809; see Elizabeth L. Frelinghuysen, “Lyell, Slover, Taylor, Phyfe, et al.," Antiques 97, no. 1 (January 1970): 119-20. His business dealings with other New York craftsmen can be inferred from an account noted by Daniel Turnier, a cabinetmaker, in his bound copy of the 1810 New York price book (with 1815 additions) now in the library of the Bayou Bend Collection. For additional information on Duncan Phyfe, see Michael K. Brown, “Duncan Phyfe” (M.A. thesis, University of Delaware, 1978) and Deborah D. Waters, “Is it Phyfe?,” in American Furniture 1993, ed. Luke Beckerdite (Milwaukee, Wis.: Chipstone Foundation, 1993): 63-80.