Antiques: The ins and outs of Colonial Furniture
by, 03-08-2011 at 06:25 PM (705 Views)
The 18th-century American furniture exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a mini-feast of masterpieces in the sort of people-oriented presentation that collectors long to see in museums, but rarely do.
The 60 Queen Anne and Chippendale selections in provocative displays are from the Metropolitan's permanent collection, and were chosen by Morrison Heckscher, curator of American decorative arts. The works in the show - which can be seen through December in the American Wing - are described in detail in ''American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Late Colonial Period: Queen Anne and Chippendale Styles,'' written by Mr. Heckscher and published by the museum and Random House ($45). The handsomely illustrated, 383-page catalogue, which was aided by a grant from Linda and George M. Kaufman, collectors of American 18th-century furniture, is the first of three volumes that will cover the Metropolitan's holdings in American furniture.
What makes the exhibition and catalogue memorable is the realistic approach Mr. Heckscher chose in presenting some offbeat and some great examples of Colonial furniture from New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Newport. The selection was made so that we will better understand how and why chairs and chests were crafted and to help us recognize both the finest as well as the less successful furniture forms from the four major American cabinetmaking centers during this period.
Everyone who admires antique furniture wonders how a wing chair looks, warts and all, stripped of its upholstery. Now they may see a denuded New England example, shown for comparison alongside a splendid, fully upholstered Newport specimen, one of only two of these easy chairs extant that is still fitted with the original stuffing and covering fabric. Surprisingly, the bared New England easy chair retains all of its natural dignity because its robust sculptural form is fully exposed in this state of undress, revealing a frame riddled with nail holes and punctuated with splits and patches.
Another display includes a delightful bit of fakery - a maple chair with an ersatz mahogany finish. The show label and catalogue tell us that the Connecticut craftsman who carved this Queen Anne chair with a scalloped apron around 1720 chose to imitate mahogany in the painted finish. A coat of reddish paint was streaked with black to suggest mahogany, which was all the rage in New England in the early 18th century. Period pieces with such finishes are rarely found today in their original state, Mr. Heckscher pointed out.
In the same area is a Massachusetts Chippendale chair, its back carved in the shape of owl's eyes, that boasts its original worn and torn leather seat. That chair would lose much of its presence if its seat were repaired or replaced. Next to it stands a third example of period furniture with an original finish - a leather-covered cradle embellished with brass nails, a New York design from about 1762 that resembles the leather-covered traveling trunks of the period - and for good reason. They were made by the same craftsmen, according to Mr. Heckscher.
Those who think furniture became functional only a decade or so ago, or that all antique furniture was made without nails and screws, will be confounded, albeit delightfully, to see an outsized, late 18th-century Philadelphia sofa shown stripped of its fabric and filling. This scrolled-arm, camel-back piece is fitted with screws to ease disassembly as readily as in 20th-century knockdown furniture, and for the same reasons - to speed the passage through doorways and in long-distance transport.
Most of the works in this show are important examples attributed to major makers, or from the collections of important statesmen and merchants of the period. Each major city is well represented with an assortment of furniture so that viewers can see the strongest characteristics. Philadelphia furniture is the most formal, the closest to British forms and taste. Even if its 18th-century artisans had never produced anything more than chairs, at which they excelled, Philadelphia would have made it into the furniture-history books. New York's game tables are rarely matched and seldom surpassed. Boston's bombe vanity and block-front bureau vie with the Newport kneehole desk-bureau with a block front and shell carvings.
The two most impressive arrangements are of groupings of furniture forms, and the arrangement of highboys is awesome. Two Philadelphia highboys flank two from Boston, and in the center is a fifth - the smallest, plainest and most satisfying of all - a Newport bonnet-top chest. Just why this highboy succeeds where the others falter is seen in a comparison of their tops and bases, which are busier and weightier.
The seven chairs displayed together create a commanding sight. But there is no contest in judging the winner to be the undulating Philadelphia Queen Anne chair with exuberantly curved arms and knees embellished with sweeping leafage.
The competition for masterpieces in 18th-century furniture in recent years has sent prices skyrocketing on designs such as those in the Metropolitan's collection. Several of the chairs on view were acquired in recent years in auctions and through dealers. One is from a pair of New York Queen Anne chairs, made after 1750 for the Apthorp family, that were a gift from Cora and Benjamin Ginsburg, the antiques dealers who also sold two others from this set at Christie's two years ago. One brought $198,000, the other $275,000. Another chair is a Philadelphia hairy-paw chair from the Cadwallader family set, one of five purchased at Sotheby's in 1974 by Harold Sack, the New York dealer who heads Israel Sack, for a total of $207,000 and then resold to museums and collectors. Another one from this set sold at Sotheby's in 1982 for $275,000.