s Chipstone | Side chair

Side chair

New York, New York
Mahogany with fabric
37 3/4 x 21 3/4 x 21 1/8 in. (95.89 x 55.25 x 53.66 cm)
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Side chair, 1795-1805
Mahogany with fabric
37 3/4 x 21 3/4 x 21 1/8 in. (95.89 x 55.25 x 53.66 cm)
The Chipstone Foundation 1949.5

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The shield-shaped back is composed of molded serpentine crest rail supported by molded, convex elements that meet at a point at the bottom. Five conforming ribs have bundles of sticks and leaves carved near the top; each rib terminates in a leaf-carved lunette at the bottom. The back is supported by a curved molded stile that transition to square rear legs with chamfered inner edges. The seat has convex side rails and a serpentine front rail. The tapered, square front legs have stop fluting carved on their front and outside faces; a horizontal rabbet is cut into four faces of each front leg below the stop fluting to mark the transition to the foot below. Rectilinear side stretchers and the medial stretcher are mortised into the front and rear legs.

After 1790 shield-back side chairs were available in large sets to the owners of fashionable houses from eastern Massachusetts to the South, primarily for use in dining rooms and in parlors. These chairs, along with square-back versions, were considered the epitome of urban style, designed to evoke ancient Roman taste which was a feature of the emerging neoclassical style in the United States. Neoclassicism would influence the design of not only furniture but also silver, architecture, ceramics, and fashions. American cabinetmakers and chairmakers learned the style from immigrant English craftsmen, imported chairs, and pattern books, most notably Thomas Hepplewhite's Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer's Guide (1788) and Thomas Sheraton's The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing-Book (1793).

However, no published source for this chair has been identified, nor are other identical chairs known. The bundles of foliage carved on the five ribs resemble fasces, the bundle of sticks with an axe in the center that was a symbol of power and authority in Imperial Rome. The motif does not appear in pattern books, and moreover no other New York shield-back chair has stop-fluted legs, a design often seen on Rhode Island Rococo tables and on shield-back chairs made by Stephen Badlam (1751-1815) of Dorchester, Massachusetts.[1]

The particular combination of carving on the ribs and stop fluting seen on this chair is highly unusual. Perhaps the original purchaser of the chair patronized this unidentified cabinetmaker because he offered features that were not available from his competitors. The market for shield-back chairs in New York, which had become the most populous city in the United States, was strong, providing work for many cabinetmakers who customized chairs with carving, inlay, and a variety of foot designs. The carving on the ribs of the shield back give this chair a more homogeneous classical appearance than is typically encountered.

[1] New York City cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe (1770-1854) added historically accurate carved fasces to the crest rails of Grecian sofas a few years after this chair. See Peter M. Kenny, et al, Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011), Plate 23 on p. 193. A Badlam shield-back chair with stop-fluted legs is in the collection of the Winterthur Museum.

Richard Miller, 2018

This information is subject to change as the result of ongoing research.

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