It will not surprise long-time readers of the blog to learn that here is yet another one of my favorite artifacts in the museum. I like painted furniture, and I like Neoclassical (a.k.a. “Hey, let’s pretend we live in ancient Greece!”) designs. This little side chair, and its many friends in other museums, combine those two elements into the perfect, if probably uncomfortable, seat. Our example features a caned seat, and gilt and colored painted decoration. It was donated by the Anderson family of Rockville, though unfortunately its earlier history is unknown; it was most likely part of a larger set at one time.
The chair has lost its original maker’s label, but the form and the decoration mean it was most likely made in Baltimore in the 1820s or ‘30s. The “klismos chair” (here’s a more traditional version than ours, also made in Baltimore) was a popular style of seating in the early 19th century, part of the aforementioned Neoclassical movement inspired by the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the mid 18th century. Clothing, fine arts, and decorative arts were affected by the fashion for all things Ancient, and the look became associated with the era around the late 18th and early 19th centuries variously known as Empire, Regency, or Federal. Our “Grecian sofa” is another example of this style of furniture; and here are some earlier examples from the London fashion magazine Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, 1815:
In the early 19th century, Baltimore furniture makers became known for their specialization in “fancy” painted furniture, including variations on the popular ancient forms. Most were painted a background color – often white, black, yellow, or green – with lots of painted decorations (painted freehand, or using stencils) on legs, rails and other convenient surfaces. Though painted furniture was produced in other cities, a chair very similar to ours in the collections of the Maryland Historical Society is described in a 1984 exhibit catalog as exhibiting “typical Baltimore features . . . short turned stiles ending at a cluster of ring turnings; a broad horizontal stay rail; side seat rails with raised ‘elbows;’ turned and tapered front legs . . . and spindle-like stretchers.”
Like ours, the MHS chair features both gilt and colored designs, made with stencils rather than handpainted. Our chair’s crest rail painting is a stenciled basket of fruit, with a pineapple in the center, surrounded by flowers; there’s ivy on the stay rail, a sunburst on the front seat rail, and something that might be a flame (?) on the stiles and legs.
Baltimore painted furniture has been collectible for many years, but because it was seen as more of a “folk” style, there are still undiscovered pieces to be found at auction or in personal collections (much to the delight of furniture folks). It can be found in many art museums and historic house museums, particularly, though not exclusively, in Baltimore. If local readers want to take some field trips, check out the painted furniture at the Maryland Historical Society, the Baltimore Museum of Art, Mount Clare Museum House, Homewood, and the newish furniture exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. And by all means, stop by the Beall-Dawson House and visit our own piece! It’s in the Front Hall, by the back door.