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Side Chair

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Side Chair

Date: 1850-1855
Medium: Rosewood, ash, modern upholstery
Overall: 42 3/8 × 18 5/8 × 17 1/2in. (107.6 × 47.3 × 44.5cm)
Signed: none
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 96.5
Label Text
The carved and pierced leafy scrolls, twisted spindles, cabochon, and drop finials on this side chair are elements common to American and European interpretations of the Elizabethan Revival style. The grotesque mask on the crest of this chair introduces a captivating motif. It may be a derivation of the Green Man-a male face comprising leafy fragments, sometimes rendered with horns sprouting from his head and vegetation growing from his mouth-a motif that can be traced to ancient Rome.


Text Entries

MWPI’s high-back chair is a classic interpretation of the Elizabethan revival style, popular in America in the 1860s and 1870s. The carved and pierced leafy scrolls (encased in a geometric framework at the crest of the chair), twisted spindles, cabochons, and drop finials are all elements common to European and American interpretations of the style. An examination of the construction of the chair reveals a variety of manufacturing techniques. The chair is fabricated of solid rosewood. An additional layer of wood was applied at the crest to achieve the necessary depth for the execution of the hand-carved face. The foliate pattern in the crest and the acanthus leaves at the tops of the front legs are also hand carved. In other areas, however, mass-production techniques were used in conjunction with hand carving to create an overall effect of intricate artistry. The “relief carvings” at the bottom corners of the seat back and within the central tablet on the seat rail, for example, are composed of wooden elements applied to flat surfaces. The casual viewer might conclude that the chair was costly to produce, but a more detailed exploration of construction would demonstrate otherwise.

The combination of workmanship and ornamentation imply that the maker of this chair was imitating the work of upper-echelon New York City cabinetmakers such as Alexander Roux and Charles Baudouine, who produced related examples. The use of intricate foliage within an angular framework and the incorporation of a carved mask at the crest compare to furniture attributed to Baudouine.(1) However, Baudouine’s works exhibit finer craftsmanship, use laminated rosewood, and rely more heavily on rococo details than this chair does.

The grotesque mask in the MWPI chair’s crest rail introduces a captivating motif that is possibly a derivation of the Green Man—a male face comprising leafy fragments, sometimes rendered with horns sprouting from its head or with vegetation growing from his mouth. On this chair the countenance is encircled by leaves and disports foliage at the top of the head and side of the face. The use of the Green Man motif can be traced to ancient Rome. By the nineteenth century, designers were most familiar with the image from its use as an architectural element that was incorporated into the decorative treatments on the exteriors of cathedrals and public buildings from as early as the fifteenth century.(2) Nineteenth-century American furniture artisans were also familiar with the Green Man through pictorial sources such as Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament (1856), in which several plates incorporate variations on the Green Man motif as it appeared in Roman and Renaissance ornamentation. French furniture design publications such as Désiré Guilmard’s Garde-Meuble, Album de l’exposition de l’industrie, 1844 (1845) also illustrated the Green Man motif.(3) Another possible source for this face may have been the representations of the Green Man that became part of May Day celebrations during the nineteenth century.

The symbolism of the Green Man has varied throughout the centuries, but the likeness has been generally associated with life, renewal, and the taming of nature. The Green Man may have been considered an appropriate symbol for mid-nineteenth-century society as it embraced, perhaps ambivalently, burgeoning industrialization. The image on the chair may have been an expression of man’s dominance over nature or a nostalgic token of a disappearing relationship with nature.

 Essay by Anna Tobin D'Ambrosio

1. A labeled side chair in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, provides the basis for the attribution of this and numerous other pieces of seating furniture to Baudouine. A related sofa is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. See Eileen Dubrow and Richard Dubrow, American Furniture of the 19th Century, 1840-1880 (Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, 1983), p. 117. Two of the three sections of the tripartite back of the sofa parallel the Virginia chair. The third section is more ornately embellished; the crest features a grotesque face formed from vegetation. The Virginia chair and Chicago sofa directly parallel a suite at Glenmont, Edison National Historical Site, West Orange, NJ. The faces on the crests of the two sofas in the Glenmont suite are more ornate and have horns sprouting from their heads and vegetation emerging from their mouths. An analogous suite, formerly in the collection of Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk, Conn., was sold at auction; see Neal Aucdon Co., “Autumn Estates Auction,” sale cat. (New Orleans, La., Oct. 4, 1997), lot 358.

2. See William Anderson, Green Man: The Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990).

3. Printed Book and Periodical Collection, Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, Winterthur, Del. A chair that is an exact likeness of the line drawing in these publications is in the collection of MWPI (accession no. 59.85). The carved decoration on the legs of this chair includes a male face with an open mouth with vegetation spilling out. The same chair design was published in Guilmard’s Le Garde-Meuble Ancien et Moderne, Journal D'Ameublement, Paris, Mar. 15, 1851.