American neoclassical design featured by New York gallery


May 26, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

Motifs from the ancient world -- carved winged caryatids, crouching lions, animals' paws and eagles' heads, brass strung lyres, Egyptian figures, several varieties of leafy plant, painted griffins and unicorns, die-stamped metal inlay, imported French Empire ormolu mounts, slabs of white marble -- all decorate furniture made in America during the period from 1815 to 1830, when the leaders of the young republic were proclaiming faith in Greco-Roman principles on which they laid the foundations of this country.

Since his student days at Harvard more than a quarter of a century ago, Stuart Feld, president of Hirschl and Adler Galleries in New York, has pursued this neoclassical furniture as passionately as the cultural and political leaders who shaped the republic did.

Mr. Feld notes that two Baltimore curators have scheduled exhibitions. Gregory Weidman has planned "Classical Maryland 1815-1845" for the Maryland Historical Society in 1993, and at the same time Wendy Cooper's much- anticipated "Classical Taste in America 1800-1840," at the Baltimore Museum of Art, will survey a broad range of this period's decorative arts from Maine to New Orleans.

For his current exhibition, "Neoclassicism in America, Inspiration and Innovation 1810-1840," which continues through June 7 at ++ Hirschl and Adler Galleries, Mr. Feld chose a selection of furniture, silver, glass, porcelain and lighting as well as paintings and sculpture that provides several lessons in connoisseurship.

For the student of American furniture, the show is full of surprises. A sofa with reeded legs and inturned arms very similar to several by Duncan Phyfe bears the stencil of cabinetmaker Michael Allison, with his New York address. A pair of caryatid card tables thought to be by Charles-Honore Lannuier may have been made by Phyfe. The carving is different and the gilding not as pure as that on the stamped Lannuier pier table next to it.

The secretaire a abbatant is a confusing piece. It was once thought to be a Philadelphia piece, but Mr. Feld definitely thinks it is from New York and was possibly designed by Phyfe. However, it has an ormolu mount that is identical to one on a Boston pier table.

A drop-leaf breakfast table with double elliptic leaves, a type usually known as Phyfe, stands next to a bed stamped twice on each rail "Charles-Honore Lannuier." This is to show that the carved cuffs below the reeded part of its legs and the capitals on the reeded posts of the bed are similar. Could the table be by Lannuier?

Lannuier made the square-back armchair next to it for New York's City Hall before 1812, when he sent a bill for it and the others, charging $14 each. The waterleaf carved supports for the arm are in a manner generally credited to Duncan Phyfe. The bulbous terminations of the front legs do not have a French source; they are from the English cabinetmaker Thomas Sheraton's design book.

"I am convinced that we can define regional styles, but I am not convinced about attributions to specific makers," Mr. Feld says. He concludes that this neoclassical furniture was hand made to order because it has so many variations and that several shops turned out similar products.

"Why is it that the feet of Barry's several 'elliptic chests' are different? Why does one Philadelphia celleret have a plinth under the lion supports and another doesn't?" he asks.

"It was the decision of the client; there was no standardization," he answers. "Every customer wanted something a little different."

The show offers an impressive selection of furniture for sale, including five pieces owned by Israel Sack Inc. Several pieces were sold just before or just after the show opened on April 30. The Lannuier bed, the Allison sofa, the Pembroke table and a New York piano have been spoken for.

Most of the furniture looks as it did the day it came from the shop. The figured veneers shine like marble, the gilt has a rich warm glow.

"I have the same philosophy for restoring this furniture as I do for paintings," Mr. Feld says. "I take off what has been added to the original surface and then protect it with a thin coat of varnish. This furniture looks dreadful when it is not properly groomed."

He says he spent an entire summer with scalpel in hand, removing bit by bit the old finish and gesso from the animal paw feet on the pair of figural card tables.

"I had to get down to the original surface, which was painted to resemble excavated bronze, and 97 percent of it was there," he says. Much old gilt was spruced up over the years with bronze powder that subsequently turned dark and opaque. It must be removed, according to Mr. Feld. Often much of the original gilt remains beneath it and simply needs to be touched up.

In his essay in the exhibition's illustrated catalog ($25), Mr. Feld chronicles previous exhibitions of neoclassical decorative arts beginning with the late Berry Tracy's 1963 show at the Newark Museum, followed by "19th Century America" at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1970.

With the exception of "Federal Philadelphia," at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there have been few museum exhibitions since. However, some new research was published recently in the magazine Antiques.

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