The Chest of Many Mysteries

Editor’s note: in this post, Winterthur curator Wendy A. Cooper shares her excitement about the start of the research process that happens when a new object is added to the collection.

Chest, painted by Johannes Spitler (1774–1837) Massanutten, Page County, Virginia, ca. 1797. Yellow pine, walnut, with paint; forged iron. Gift offer from Mr. and Mrs. John A. Herdeg L2011.1072.

At first glance, I might have thought that this chest, boldly painted with red, white, and blue pigments, was a 20th- or 21st-century creation. Its striking front panel, organized in five vertical sections, is geometrically ordered with designs formed using a straightedge and a compass, age-old tools in almost every craftsman’s kit. However, the wear on the top and the losses to the paint on the front and sides quickly tell me of its age, and the barely legible date “1771” in black paint and the name “JOHN / SPITLER” on the central panel provide some answers about its origin. At the same time, those answers raise more questions as I begin to explore the mysteries of this chest, its maker, and its original owner.

Currently offered as a gift to Winterthur by Mr. and Mrs. John A. Herdeg, the chest was acquired by the donors at an antiques show in New Castle, Delaware, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, early in their married life. At that time, they did not know that this chest was one of a small number of pieces painted by Johannes Spitler (1774–1837), a Mennonite living in a remote region of the Shenandoah Valley called Massanutten, originally settled by Swiss and German families from Pennsylvania in the 1730s.

Detail of the chest

This mystery unfolded soon after the chest was purchased, when scholars discovered that the name painted on the front had been “refreshed” (or over painted) due to inevitable losses caused by the resinous quality of the hard pine. The restorer who did the work mistakenly interpreted the “P” in “SPITLER” as an “E,” so he made it “SEITLER.” When this error was corrected, there was still the question whether or not the John Spitler noted on the chest was the owner or the painter Johannes Spitler. One mystery was solved, but more questions were raised! Why would someone have the full name of the painter placed on their chest, as opposed to their own name? Research at the time confirmed there was another John Spitler who lived in Stony Creek, northwest of Massanutten. Might the chest have been made for him by Johannes?

But wait—there are more questions in this mystery: is the “refreshed” date of “1771” correct—or might that have also been a misinterpretation by the restorer? Spitler the painter was not born until 1774, and another almost identical chest is dated “1798” with “No: 48” on it; so wouldn’t this number “No 27” most likely have been made in 1797? It has been suggested that this date might be commemorative, but all the pieces Spitler dated seem to have the date they were executed on them.

Cooper examines the chest with furniture conservator Mark Anderson

In the ensuing year, I will work with Winterthur’s head furniture conservator, Mark Anderson, and senior scientist and head of the museum’s Scientific and Analytical Laboratory, Jennifer Mass, to determine if modern scientific techniques can reveal the original date as well as what was painted just above that date. I will also network with my southern scholar colleagues regarding their most current knowledge of Spitler and any additional pieces that might inform my research on this chest. Because Spitler’s parents moved to Fairfield County, Ohio, in 1807, and Johannes and his family followed soon after, his career currently appears to be limited to the years (about 1795–1810) in the Massanutten region of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Who was the painter Johannes (or John) Spitler and where did he get his inspiration for the creative work that he did? Was he also the craftsman who made the chest or was he only the decorator of it? What was his training and why is there such a small amount of work known by him today? So many questions and mysteries—not unlike the questions I ask about many artisans of the past—as the search continues for more on Johannes Spitler.

Mark Anderson and Wendy A. Cooper

This chest will be featured in Winterthur’s Furniture Gallery beginning in December as a selection of southern furniture from the collection is presented as a prelude to the 2012 Furniture Forum on “Furniture in the South” to be held March 1–2, 2012. Meanwhile, to see an important hanging cupboard painted by Johannes Spitler for his relative and neighbor Jacob Strickler, visit Winterthur’s special exhibition Paint, Pattern & People, Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725–1850, on view through January 8, 2012.

Wendy A. Cooper is the Lois F. and Henry S. McNeil senior curator of furniture and recently curated the special exhibition Paint, Pattern & People with assistant curator for the exhibition project, Lisa Minardi. Having worked with Winterthur’s furniture collection the past 16 years, her interests are wide ranging, and she has added a great diversity of objects to that collection. Currently though, she continues to research some of the mysteries of southeastern Pennsylvania furniture.
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