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Sofa

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Sofa

Attributed to: John H. Belter (1804-1863; active New York, New York, 1844-1863)

Date: 1850-1860
Medium: Mahogany, cherry, rosewood, yellow-poplar, modern upholstery
Dimensions:
Overall: 50 7/8 x 68 3/8 x 31in. (129.2 x 173.7 x 78.7cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 59.116
Label Text
John Henry Belter, the maker of this sofa and matching chairs (MWPAI 59.119 and 59.121), is synonymous with the Rococo Revival style in America. Belter not only fashioned dramatic and comfortable furniture of good quality, he continually sought ways to improve what he was making. Between 1847 and 1860 he obtained four patents from the United States Patent Office.

One patent was for a process that allowed Belter to fabricate curved components by pressing layers of laminated wood in cauls (molds). The ornate frame for the sofa back is made of seven laminated layers of wood with alternating grain. The top and bottom layers are mahogany; less expensive woods were most likely used in between. Extra pieces of wood were applied at the crest to allow for deep carving.

Text Entries

John Henry Belter (1804-63) was born in the town of Iburg in the kingdom of Hanover, in the northwest corner of present-day Germany, about forty miles north of the city of Dortmund.(1) In 1833 he traveled to New York City presumably to investigate its potential as a place to live and work. He apparently liked what he found, but he may not have been a permanent resident of New York until I844, when he was listed in the city directory as a cabinetmaker at 40 ½  Chatham Street.(2) In the interim Belter may have worked as a journeyman to be able to accumulate enough capital to establish a business under his own name.

Belter’s move to the United States was fortuitous. He left what almost certainly would have been a life of obscurity and instead made his name synonymous with the rococo revival style. His fame was apparently deserved; he not only fashioned dramatic and comfortable furniture of good quality, he continually sought ways to improve what he was making as well. Between 1847 and 1860 he obtained four patents from the United States Patent Office. One was for a process that allowed Belter to fabricate compound-curved components by pressing layers of laminated wood in cauls. Belter termed it an “improvement in the manufacturing of furniture,” from which one can presume that he did not invent the idea of using laminated wood to produce curved furniture. Indeed, he observed that “pressed work [for furniture] has [previously] been curved only in one plane so that each part forms a portion of a hollow cylinder or cone; but by my invention each portion of the pressed work, when completed, forms a portion of a hollow sphere.”(3) Belter fabricated what he called “dishing forms”—his laminated work was curved both in height and in width.

The backs of the pieces of furniture in the MWPI matching suite are made of seven laminated layers of wood with alternating grain; they are curved but not dished.(4) Because a number of other mid-nineteenth-century American furniture manufacturers made laminated forms that curved in only one plane, one hesitates to attribute this seating to Belter. However, a set of rosewood seating furniture that is virtually identical in design and execution with this group exists with its original bill of sale from Belter. The bill itemizes two sofas, two armchairs, four parlor chairs, a center table, and an étagère.(5) The sofa and chairs are described in the bill as being in the “Arabasket” design. In all likelihood Belter was referring to, and phonetically misspelled, the term arabesque, “a species of. . . decoration . . . composed in flowing lines of branches, leaves, and scroll-work fancifully intertwined.”(6)

The choice of juxtaposed and overlapping elements adapted from nature reflect a culture in which attitudes toward the forested wilderness were evolving. Until this time Americans had tended to regard wild nature and its native inhabitants as dangerous, as things to be tamed and conquered. However, with the “civilizing” influences of the early nineteenth century—canals, turnpikes, railroads, westward expansion, growth of  inland cities, and widespread and scientific cultivation of the land—nature became less threatening. Its bounty was welcomed into homes in the forms of potted plants and cut flowers and their counterparts in carved wood.

The MWPI suite of furniture handsomely represents this phenomenon. It is a striking and voluptuous interpretation of the design aesthetic suggested by the term arabesque. The frames are almost completely covered with a complex intertwining of carved naturalistic motifs—leaves, tendrils, roses and other flowers, grape clusters, ruffled shells, and cornucopias—that embellish a composition of intertwined voluted scrolls. The piercing of the laminated backs allows light to pass through and heightens the visual impact of the rococo motifs.

This emphasis on visual complexity did not come at the expense of comfort. Sofas, chairs, and even stools were built to withstand the considerable pressure of a network of coil springs tied under compression. Sprung bottoms, as they were termed, were developed during the early nineteenth century to increase the comfort of seating furniture and beds. Although backs were not sprung, they were often tightly stuffed with horsehair and tufted to provide cushioned support.

 Please see this essay for 59.119 and 59.121

1. Belter filed his application for passport travel to the United States (no. 817) on Aug. 29, 1833, at Osnabruck, Germany. It records that he apparently originally intended to go to Baltimore, but Belter changed his mind and went to New York instead. The original passport application is in the State Records, Bremen, Germany. Photocopy, MWPI research files, courtesy of the author.

2. The New-York City Directory (New York: John Doggett Jr., 1844), p. 34.

3. Design patent 19,405 (Feb. 23, 1858), U.S. Patent Office, Washington, D.C. Belter’s three other patents were for machinery to saw chair backs (no. 5,208), for the construction of bedsteads (no. 15,552), and for the construction of bureau drawers (no. 26,881).

4. The MWP1 research file for this group of furniture contains a document in which the former owner indicates that the sofa was made for a member of the “Shaffer” family of Pottsville, Pa., about 1847 and that it remained in the family until about 1953. The original purchaser may have been john or Killian Shaeffer, both of whom were residents of Pottsville in the 1840s. Even though the document mentions only the sofa, the accompanying chairs were almost certainly made en suite.

5. A sofa, armchair, and the table from the set, along with Belter’s itemized bill for them, are pictured and discussed in Michael K. Brown, “A Decade of Collecting at Bayou Bend,” Antiques 128, no. 3 (September 1985): 516, 517. According to David B. Warren, senior curator and director of the Bayou Bend Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Col. Benjamin Smith Jordan of Milledgeville, Ga., purchased this furniture from Belter on Sept. 5, 1855, on behalf of his sister-in-law, Mrs. Greenhill Jordan.

6. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971), s.v. “arabesque.”