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Grecian Couch; Settee

On view

Grecian Couch; Settee

Date: 1815-1825
Medium: Soft maple, birch, cherry, paint, gilding, caned seat and back, modern cushion
Overall: 32 1/2 x 83 1/2 x 24 1/2in. (82.6 x 212.1 x 62.2cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 60.67
Label Text
This couch is an elegant variant of the popular Empire sofa form made fashionable by English and French designers of the early nineteenth century. A couch form is differentiated from a sofa form in that one end of a couch is higher than the other.

In the United States this form became ubiquitous, but it developed with distinctive local characteristics. New York couches can be distinguished from those made in other East Coast centers by the practice of using lavishly carved and gilded surfaces, contrasting colors, gold stenciled ornamentation, and accents of vert antique (the antiqued green color on the feet of this example). This couch is made of maple, painted to simulate a more expensive wood, rosewood.

Text Entries

This couch is an elegant variant of the popular Empire sofa form made fashionable by English and French designers of the early nineteenth century. The couch form is distinguished from the sofa form in that one end of the couch is higher than the other.(1) Based on Roman models, English examples of the couch form may date from as early as 1795; French examples may date from as early as 1788.(2) Popularized by the French and made famous by Jacques-Louis David’s (1748-1826) Portrait of Mme. Récamier (1800), the form was included in widely circulated English design books such as Thomas Sheraton’s Cabinet Dictionary (1803) and George Smith’s Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1808).

The historian John Morley noted that the “Grecian” couch form was more Roman than Greek with its “rolled back arm and lion paw feet” and that the imprecisely named “Grecian” squab (couch) soon

became “indispensable in most Regency drawing rooms.”(3) In America the form was equally ubiquitous, but it developed with distinctive local characteristics as its production spread to nearly every region of the United States. American couches feature a range of ornament from highly figured veneers to richly grained surfaces, from elaborate ormolu mounts to detailed stenciled designs, and from cut-brass inlays to a variety of carved elements that include floridly carved legs and paw feet.

New York couches can be distinguished from those made in other East Coast centers by their lavishly carved and gilded surfaces and by the use of contrasting colors—red, brown, or black ground color; gold stenciled ornamentation; gilded carving; and vert antique accents. The MWPI example, made of maple but painted to simulate rosewood, has refined gilding and vert antique paw feet capped by carved and gilded botanical clusters. Caning gives the couch delicacy and stylishness, and the repeated curves of the arms and back add to the overall feeling of lightness.

New York couches often employ cornucopias as part of their decorative vocabulary. While the MWPI example does not include this element, a bracket of fruit and leaves crowns each front paw foot. Related couches are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Cleveland Museum ofArt.(4) The gilded decoration on the couch in the Metropolitan Museum includes small cornucopias, eagles, masks, swans, and scrolls, many of which are also found on the MWPI couch.(5) The quality of this decoration is of the highest level, suggesting the hand of an accomplished artisan, perhaps someone skilled in the art of engraving.(6) Another common feature among this group of couches is the use of gilded metal or wooden rosettes (as on the MWPI example) at the termination of the couch ends and on the back crest rail.

Essay by Page Talbott

1. A removable padded cushion, upholstered in haircloth, softens the seat and blocks drafts. The cushion originally would not have been tufted. Typically, a round bolster fit into the curve at the higher end of the sofa.

2. See, for example, the sofa designed by Henry Holland for Southill House, ca. 1795-1800, illustrated in John Morley, Regency Design, 1790-1840: Gardens, Buildings, Interiors, Furniture (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993), p. 372.

3. Morley, Regency Design, p. 376.

4. The couch at the Metropolitan Museum descended in the family of Robert Gill and remained near Fishkill, N.Y., from 1833 until 1940 when it was given to the museum. According to family history Duncan Phyfe made Gill's furniture, but no documentary evidence corroborates this claim. See Joseph Downs, Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 36, no. 1 (January 1941): 7-8. The Metropolitan Museum’s couch is illustrated in Dean A. Fales  Jr., American Painted Furniture, 1660- 1880 (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972), p. 161. Its reproduction horsehair upholstery is based on a small piece of plain black haircloth that remained from the original fabric. The couch at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is illustrated in Jonathan L. Fairbanks and Elizabeth Bidwell Bates, American Furniture, 1620 to the Present (New York: Richard Marek Publishers, 1981), p. 279.

5. Furniture curators and conservators have debated what techniques were used to achieve the precise gilded designs found on the MWPI couch and others of comparable quality. While the similarity between designs suggests that craftsmen used stencils or some method of transfer, the lack of symmetry in the motifs has led experts to conclude that a degree of handwork was involved. The author would like to thank the following colleagues for their input on this issue—John Courtenay, Donald L. Fennimore, Robert D. Mussey  Jr., Cynthia Van Allen Schaffner, John L. Scherer, Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, and Deborah Dependahl Waters.

6. Furniture scholar John A. Courtenay recently discovered the name of a New York City engraver on the hand-gilded nameplate of a New York pianoforte, suggesting that a specialist may have been involved in creating these decorations. John Courtenay, telephone conversation with the author, May 17, 1997.