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Side Chair

Not on view

Side Chair

Maker: Herter Brothers (active New York, New York, 1864-1906)

Date: 1881-1882
Medium: Gilded hard maple, walnut, ash, inlaid ivory, modern upholstery
Dimensions:
Overall: 34 1/8 × 16 7/8 × 19in. (86.7 × 42.9 × 48.3cm)
Signed: Impressed on underside of rear seat rail: '891'; inscribed in blue crayon on seat rail: '891 Gilt' and 'Store'; stamped on brass plate mounted beneath front seat rail: 'De H'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase with Funds from the Sarah T. Norris Fund
Object number: 82.41
Label Text
Perhaps more than any other form, reception chairs reveal the sophisticated design talents of Christian Herter and his associates during the 1870s and early 1880s. Because such chairs were lightweight and easy to move, they were popular in European and American drawing rooms, bedrooms, and boudoirs throughout the nineteenth century, and they frequently appear in period photographs of interiors Herter Brothers designed.

The MWPI chair is identical in form and in ornamentation with chairs in a drawing room--decorated by Herter Brothers--of a prominent New York City residence that appeared in a photograph published in Artistic Houses (1883-84). Even if the maker of this chair were not known, the butterfly-shaped hand-hold (an allusion, perhaps, to a popular Aesthetic Movement motif), curved crest rail, flaring stiles, and tapering front legs (each of which is encircled by a pronounced "cuff" above a flaring conical foot) would suggest the authorship and date.

Text Entries
Perhaps more than any other form, small side chairs reveals the sophisticated design talents of Christian Herter and his associates during the 1870s and early 1880s. Because they were lightweight and easy to move, such chairs were popular in European and American drawing rooms, bedrooms, and boudoirs throughout the nineteenth century, and they frequently appear in period photographs of interiors Herter Brothers designed. Chairs related to the MWPI example, for instance, include models in Jacob Ruppert's drawing room pictured in Artistic Houses (1883-84), a rosewood chair with floral marquetry on the crest rail that descended in the family of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and an ebonized variation of the chair that belonged to Jay Gould.(1)

Around 1880 Herter Brothers commenced the decoration of several important New York City houses­ William H. Vanderbilt (1879) , Darius Ogden Mills and J. Pierpont Morgan (both 1880) , Mrs. Robert Leighton Stuart (1881), and Jay Gould (about 1882)-that featured gilded or gold-spangled furniture in the drawing rooms. Considering the number and scope of these commissions, surprisingly few pieces of gilded Herter furniture have come to light.(2) The MWPI chair is identical in form and ornamentation to chairs in the photograph of Mary Stuart's drawing room published in Artistic Houses; the inlaid ivory garland entwined by a ribbon on the crest rail is clearly visible on one of four Stuart chairs.(3) In Artistic Houses Herter Brothers is credited with the fabrication of all the embroideries, plasterwork, woodwork, furniture, and other decorations in the room, and the architect William B. Bigelow, in charge of the Herter Brothers design department at the time, was identified "in connection with their qualities of design and execution."(4)

Mrs. Stuart's drawing room, completed by the spring of 1883, was typical of most of the drawing rooms Herter Brothers decorated in the early 1880s. It was characterized by ubiquitous stylized surface patterns-de rigueur during the aesthetic movement-that used the colors and delicate floral patterns of eighteenth-century French interiors. The author of Artistic Houses described the room as having "enameled bass-wood...picked out in different colors of gold and in pale colors to harmonize with the wall-coverings and the paintings of the ceiling...[and presenting] a general tone of ivory." "The furniture," the narrative continues, "corresponding in finish with the room, shows ivory enamel and gilt, and the upholstery is of the same materials as the wall coverings, namely, Louis Quinze damask, with a cherry ground."(5) The photograph in Artistic Houses suggests that, with the exception of the crest rails, the Stuart side chairs were entirely gilded, as seen in the MWPI example. The chairs were upholstered in a pale-colored silk that was embellished with flowers to harmonize with the rest of the furnishings in the room.(6)

Even if the maker of this chair were not known, the butterfly-shaped hand-hold (an allusion, perhaps, to a popular aesthetic movement motif), curved crest rail, flaring stiles, and tapering front legs (each of which is encircled by a pronounced "cuff' above a flaring conical foot) would suggest the authorship and date. The gentle outward sweep of the stiles is reminiscent of the gilded chairs Christian Herter designed for the Vanderbilt drawing room (1879-82), although the slight backward arch of these supports was already evident in chairs the firm produced earlier. The unusual turned legs and the shaped backrest of the MWPI chair, which seems suspended between the stiles by parenthetical voids, are also Herter Brothers hallmarks of the early 1880s.(7)


1. The Ruppert chairs are pictured in Artistic Houses: Being a Series of Interior Views of a Number of the Most Beautiful and Celebrated Homes in the United States, with a Description of the Art Teasures Contained Therein (New York: D. Appleton, 1883-84) 2: part 1, near  p. 103. The rosewood chair is discussed 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), cat. no. 40; an  identical chair  from  the  same  suite  and  with  the  impressed number "454" is in the collection  of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (accession no. 1975-043-001). Since Herter Brothers was published, an upholstered chair from the same suite, with the pencil inscription "Mrs.  C. Vanderbilt," has come to light (Margot Johnson to author, 1996). A  pair  of ebonized  chairs with a  garland motif on each crest is said to have come  from  the  Ohio  residence  of  President James A. Garfield.  An ebonized variation of the form (which differs in the treatment of its crest rail) may have been part of Jay Gould's ebonized Anglo­Japanese bedroom suite. The suite is   in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the chair is at Lyndhurst, formerly Gould's country home in Tarrytown, N.Y. A pair of gilded chairs in the collections of the Metropolitan and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, respectively, is the only other gilded versions of the form currently known.  Each bears the impressed number "5595" and retains nearly all of its original gilding. Each crest rail is decorated with a "necklace" of flowers carved in bas -relief, and the stiles are studded with "strung coins," an ancient motif Herter Brothers favored during this period. The Houston chair has the name "Mills" inscribed in pencil on the top of the proper right seat rail, which links it to Darius Ogden Mills' New York domicile decorated in 1880.


 

2. For further information about Herter Brothers see MWPI cat. no. 38 and Howe et al., Herter Brothers. Most gilded furniture Herter Brothers manufactured seems to have been designed for urban residences in the years around 1880. See Howe et al., Herter Brothers, cat. nos. 4, 2S, 29, 37, 42, and p. 52 for illustrations of gilded pieces. During the 1860s and early 1870s the firm imported gilded reception chairs from France for use in interiors such as the music room in Thurlow Lodge, Menlo Park, Calif., decorated about 1872-73; see Howe et al., Herter Brothers, p. 161, for a  photograph illustrating this practice.



3. The use of mother-of-pearl in Herter Brothers furniture dates to the years around 1880. See Howe et al., Herter Brothers, pp. 116-17, cat. no. 11, for discussion of a rosewood cabinet inlaid with mother­of-pearl garlands and ribbons.


 

4. Artistic Houses 2: part 1, p. 88. Christian Herter announced his retirement from the firm in 1879 but occupied himself with the William H. Vanderbilt commission with the understanding that it would be his last project (Howe et al., Herter Brothers, p. 231). Although Herter's associates,  including Bigelow, have not received much attention to date, with the circumstances of Christian  Herter's "retirement" and the number of commissions Herter Brothers embarked upon around  1880,  it  is  probable that other members of the firm were directly involved in overseeing some  of these projects.



5. Artistic Houses 2: part 1, p. 88.



6. The gilded surface and original upholstery were lacking when MWPI acquired the chair in 1982. A conservation report from 1986 in the MWPl research tiles mentions yellow and gold threads found on the chair. The conservation report concludes that the whole chair, except the in-laid face of the crest rail, was originally water gilded; traces of original gilding are on the underside of the seat rails, on the underside of the crest rail, and on the piercing of the hand-hold. There is also indication of a thin gesso ground with a sienna/burnt sienna bole and a yellow ochre wash on the edges of the seat frame. The chair bears an impressed number-891-on the underside of the seat rail. There are two inscriptions written in blue crayon on the frame of the seat-"89] Gilt" and "Store"; the latter is crossed out in pencil. The initials "DE H" on a brass tag affixed to the chair are neither those of Robert or Mary Stuart, nor of Mrs. Stuart's executors, who were slated to receive some of her house hold furnishings after her death; the tag may refer to a subsequent owner of the chair. (See "Many Public Bequests / Mrs. Robert L. Stuart's Will Filed for Probate," New York Times Jan. 6, 1892, p. 8.)


 

7. For an illustration of one of the two surviving gilded chairs from the Vanderbilt commission, see Howe et al., Herter Brothers, cat. no. 37, and,  for further comparison, cat.  nos. 21 and 25. The distinctive turned leg with flared conical foot bears a relationship to ancient furniture, such as Egyptian stools and chairs that appear in Creek and Roman reliefs and wall paintings. For representative examples see Helena Hayward, ed., World Furniture (London: Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1981), p. 12, ill. 10, and Maxwell Anderson, "Pompeian Frescoes in the Metropolitan   Museum of Art," The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 45, no. 3 (Winter 1987-88): 28-29. I am grateful to Mimi Findlay for providing me with additional illustrations of this distinctive feature.