The Dating Of The Period

As Phyfe occupied a very advantageous position in that he was located in New York, by then advancing in metropolitan prominence, and was working for a select clientele, it is likely that he was one of the firSt to adopt the Direftoire mode. It would, therefore, have been exceedingly interesting to establish the date of his firSt productions in that vein, and I have bent considerable effort in trying to ascertain this. Mr. Halsey, who has Studied Phyfe furniture for thirty years, tells me that he learned "before Phyfe furniture was known, that certain old families in New York had records that certain pieces were made by a cabinetmaker named Phyfe," and so these pieces are documented to that extent. I have not, however, learned of bills or records that would fix the date of his firSt Dire ¿loire work.

My own idea is that in general we may date the period as from about 1805 to about 1815. MoSt of the French furniture being actually constructed during the Consulate, 1799-1804, when order had firmly been reestablished, it is not very probable that the Style was taken up here to any considerable extent before 1805, and after the close of the war in 1814 there would certainly have been an influx of Empire tendencies both direct from France and through London.

BADLY overworked expression, in writing on decoration, and one that has little if any application to the American furniture of previous periods, is the word influence. Our craftsmen did not work under the influence of Hepplewhite or another: they as definitely worked in the Siyle of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, or Sheraton as did the cabinet-makers of England itself. As we have seen, they often made combinations and innovations, but these were of their own initiative and due to no foreign influence. Even in the Direéloire period our furniture closely trailed that of France or the English derivations thereof.

But there is now a change. The pieces of American furniture that can be said to be of the átyle of the French Empire or of the Empire, or Regency, átyle in England are comparatively few indeed: for the moát part American Empire is an inchoate mode composed of survivals from previous periods modified by influences and combined with features derived from abroad.

We shall see these as we go on, but it may immediately be mentioned that one of the moát noticeable of the influences is weight If we were ignorant of origins we might think, on seeing some of the debased pieces of later years, none of which are illuátrated here, that our craftsmen discerned a virtue in mere avoirdupois: the truth of course is that Percier and Fontaine, JacobDesmalter, and the other ebeniBes of Napoleon were engaged in. providing magnificent and monumental surroundings for their hero, and that bigness, heaviness, and the expanse of large surfaces of handsome ma hogany were logical means to the securing of such effedts. This is evident in the one piece of furniture illustrated here that is really close to the French Empire Style—the large sideboard in Plate 115.

After the really beautiful things of paSt periods that we have been seeing we may not particularly care for this piece of furniture, but at leaSt we cannot deny that it is handsome and imposing. And compared with some monstrosities later perpetrated it is by no means a bad piece of design. This volume closes at about the year 1825 before many of these debased pieces were made and so we escape their infliction.

The cheSt of drawers in Plate 116 is quite illuminating as a derivation—showing as it does the adaptations made by our craftsmen., The line-cut accompanying it is a French Empire commode of 1811-13, traced from "Meubles et Ob jets de Gout" by permission of William Helburn, Inc., and is the nearest to this American example of half a dozen similar pieces in that volume.

The derivation of form is at once evident, but none of these French pieces have the extension running across the lower portion of the cheSt. The metal mounts of the French Style have been omitted here and the knobs are of mahogany: it will be noted however that the character of the capitals of the pillars has been retained, notwithstanding the change in material.

One of the greatest losses in our following of the Gallic mode was in the virtual abandonment of the metal mounts of the original Style: none of our workmen could have approached the exquisite design and workmanship of the fineSt examples, but simple ornaments and knobs such as those shown in the tracing should have been within reach of their accomplishment. However, the decadence was even then upon us in America as well as in Europe: great furniture design was now at its end, and after a hundred years there are no signs of its resurrection. Even in France the metal work was the finest survival—far better in design than moSt of the furniture to which it was attached. Where metal mounts appear on American furniture they were almost certainly imported and very possibly from Birmingham.

In America not only were design and the sense of proportion failing but our exquisite workmanship was departing with them: carving often becomes coarser and sometimes careless. There are few pieces of which we feel that the work was done for the sheer love of the doing, as in the paSt. To return to the present example, the proportions of the American piece are much less pleasing than those of the French: nevertheless this is an early and really excellent specimen of the Style, being built of beautifully grained mahogany, well made, and with simply turned feet, while many later examples have the cumbersome paw-feet, sometimes awkwardly Standing upon their toes. In a number of such cheSts-of-drawers the top drawers are rounded.

It is probable that pieces of American furniture of definitely Empire Style but good qualities date from between the close of the war in 1814 and 1825. Some of the furniture Still to be considered may possibly have been made slightly earlier, but it is difficult to determine, as it is of transition character; development varied in different sections, and survivals seem to have been the law of these years rather than the exception.

For there is a class of furniture quite different in character from the derivations above treated, and so frequent that several examples are given to illustrate its various phases. It is beSt exemplified by the beautiful bedstead with teSter (Plate 117) and the pretty little "late Sheraton55 sewing-table (Plate 118 A), and it is such furniture that I have mentioned as a modified survival. The sewing-table retains the outstanding leg of the earlier Sheraton period, but it also embodies the features now to be referred to as being especially chara&eriátic of the group. These are the use of the small cluáler of acanthus leaves in connexion with either the fluted or spiral-twiál column, frequently also accompanied by the pineapple.

No one of these features is new, but the greatly extended use of them and in combination may virtually be considered an American development. As showing the conálant migration of decorative motifs it is worthwhile to sidetrack a moment to remind the reader that the spiral-twiál was in the seventeenth century brought from Indo-China by the Portuguese and from thence spread through Europe. It was introduced into England through the marriage, in 1662, of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza, daughter of the King of Portugal. The pineapple was originally a native of tropical America, though its growth has spread to other continents. As a symbol of hospitality it was used in Georgian times in archite&ure, upon gate-poáls, and in silver ware. The acanthus of course goes back to the Greeks and their Corinthian capital.

The thickening of such members as legs and pillars began in France as early as the Consulate (1799) and it is seen in the legs of the sewing-table, which otherwise would be a lovely piece of furniture. The tendency waxed with the years both there and in America.

The cheál-of-drawers with rounded front, Plate 119, shows the spiral-twiál leg with pineapple top and dates probably between 1914 and 1920; while the bedátead in Plate 121 has the fluted poál combined with both the acanthus and the pineapple. This bed-


Design 1914 France Meuble


B. FRENCH EMPIRE COMMODE OF 18x1-13 From "Meubles et Objets de Goût" By permission of William Helburti, Inc.

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