s Chipstone | Easy chair

Easy chair

New York, New York
ca. 1750
Cherry with red gum
46 x 39 1/4 x 26 in. (116.84 x 99.7 x 66.04 cm)
1947.7
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Easy chair, ca. 1750
Cherry with red gum
46 x 39 1/4 x 26 in. (116.84 x 99.7 x 66.04 cm)
The Chipstone Foundation 1947.7

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The rectangular canted back has a scrolled top and is flanked by scrolled wings facing forward that flow into arms that terminate with outward-angled conical supports. The front cabriole legs have shells carved on the knees and ogee returns; the square rear legs are pieced into the rear posts above the seat rail and have chamfered inner edges; and the front seat rail is slightly convex.

Once attributed to Philadelphia, based on its general form and shell-carved knees, this easy chair's larger scale, generous proportions, squared claw feet, and the use of cherry and red gum now identify it as a product of colonial New York City. As a form, easy chairs were made from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Charleston, South Carolina, with Boston, Philadelphia, and Newport being major centers of design and production. Prohibitively expensive except for the wealthy, their cost was a factor of their size, materials, and their being the product of two craftsmen, a cabinetmaker and especially an upholsterer.

Building the frame for this chair was a fairly straightforward proposition. The cherry front legs with shells were carved; the cherry rear legs were shaped and spliced into the stiles; and all were finished only below the seat rails. Because the crest, wings, and arms were covered with fabric, the frame was built of inexpensive (sometimes recycled) softwood. The seat rails were joined to the legs, and various straight and curved boards, along with the conical structure for the arm supports, were then fitted together. The parts of the chair that were to be covered with stuffing were typically left unfinished, unlike those that would be covered by fabric alone.

After the chair frame was completed, it was sent to an upholsterer. Most colonial upholsterers emigrated from England where upholstering was an established trade. Wool damasks with woven decorative patterns, or plain and embossed moreen and harrateen fabrics of the quality suitable for cover fabrics were imported from England and the Continent by merchants in large coastal cities who supplied upholsterers. The number of individuals in the chain leading from the textile mill to the upholsterer raised the cost of textiles substantially. In addition to stocking jute webbing, canvas, and stuffing, upholsterers maintained an inventory of these costly cover fabrics from which customers chose. The materials and the upholsterer's specialized skills made an easy chair among the most expensive items in the home of a prosperous family.

The carved shells on the knees of this easy chair derive from those appearing on many British examples and, in America, on Philadelphia and Boston seating furniture forms beginning in the 1730s. Easy chairs with conical arm supports were preferred in Boston and elsewhere in New England, while Philadelphia examples typically have C-scroll-shaped arm supports. Boston and Philadelphia furniture influenced New York production where easy chairs with both arm supports were produced. Conical arm supports are commonly found on easy chairs from Boston and elsewhere in New England, unlike in Philadelphia where C-scroll-shaped arm supports were preferred. New York chairmakers produced easy chairs with both arm supports. The Boston arm support and Philadelphia-style shell carving make the chair a stylistic hybrid showing influences from both cities, while displaying the broad proportions that has become associated with New York City furniture.

The reason for the popularity of easy chairs was their functionality, namely providing comfort to the elderly and to the sick. Easy chairs were usually kept in bed chambers (and in parlors on rare occasions) where their generous size, plush upholstery, canted backs, and wings that served as headrests and blocked drafts provided comfort to those who spent much of their waking day sitting in them. Many easy chairs have built-in close stools, reinforcing the form's practicality for the infirm. John Singleton Copley's 1764 portrait of Mrs. John Powell, a depiction of an eighty-year-old woman seated in an easy chair, illustrates the use for which the form was intended.

Endnotes:
[1] Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.

Richard Miller, 2018

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

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