Located within the Empire Parlor at Winterthur is a unique pair of side chairs. With distinctive double-balloon backs, incurvate stiles, and elegant scimitar legs, these chairs stand out from other pieces in the room.1 They are constructed primarily of mahogany and represent the aspirations of a social class that used interior décor, and especially furniture, to denote status and wealth through novelty. Unlike other classically inspired chairs, many of which pay homage to the Greek klismos design, these two, with their voluptuous silhouettes and dramatic curves, reflect forms more typically associated with Biedermeier furniture of Central Europe.
The front legs of the chairs are cut from solid mahogany while the rear legs, which become the stiles, combine solid wood and veneer construction. From the base of the leg to the seat rail, the rear legs are solid. Continuing up from the seat rail, however, the stiles are veneered, with the veneers extending beyond the stiles and onto the edge of the back, gracefully connecting these structural components. The front side of the seat back is veneered with a piece of crotch-grain mahogany that, laid horizontally, visually extends the double-balloon shape and heightens the geometric nature of the chair. Around the edge of the back, layered and shaped veneers frame the center panel and form an abstracted tripartite design.2 With the exception of the raised veneers, the backs of these chairs are mainly planar, relying on the rich figured wood for ornament, a device commonly found in Biedermeier furniture.
A combination of the words bieder, meaning honest, and Meier, a comment Germanic surname, Biedermeier furniture was popular between 1815 and 1848. Emphasizing fine surfaces and stylized interpretation of neoclassical forms, the furniture found favor among middle- and upper-class consumers. Unlike the formal interiors of nineteenth-century America, with suites of matching furniture, Biedermeier interiors were designed for relaxed and comfortable living. As one historian noted: “In the same [Biedermeier] room, one could just as easily eat as read, practice a handcraft, talk or make music; the occupants could also rearrange the lightweight chairs and create groupings. The Biedermeier interior was . . . an inhabited space and said a great deal about the personal interests of the inhabitants.”
It is this type of living space that is depicted in János Boros Nepomuk’s painting Kastélyszoba, which is believed to illustrate a room in the bishop’s residence in Pecs, Hungary. Here chairs of various forms surround a table adjacent to a large L-shape sofa, suggesting that the furniture has been assembled for a small gathering. Biedermeier interiors frequently mixed chairs and sofas of assorted styles and forms in the same space, all united through their upholstery. In America, such eclecticism in furniture was rare.3
Some Biedermeier designs harken back to the French taste and goût grec of the Napoleonic era, but others are fanciful and more playful. Winterthur’s chairs appear to be related to several found in European collections, including one constructed of walnut by Josef Nepomuk Geyer of Innsbruck, Austria, now in the collection of the Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna (Museum of Applied Arts). Like the Winterthur chairs, the Geyer example features elegantly shaped stiles that flare into a double-balloon back, which, in this case, is open rather than solid, giving a light and delicate appearance to the chair. Layered veneers frame the outer edges of the back, drawing attention to the dramatic curves, not unlike the Winterthur examples.
Conspicuously absent on Geyer’s chair, however, are knees on the front legs and an apron beneath the seat. Both are common features on American chairs, and their presence on the Winterthur examples suggests a domestic origin for the pair. The Winterthur chairs are so unusual, however, that at least one scholar has questioned their New York attribution. Charles Venable noted that “since the provenance of this set of chairs is unknown and the secondary woods of ash and cherry are common to both Europe and America, one cannot be certain if these chairs were actually made in this country or simply imported.” 4
Although much furniture was imported to the United States, thousands of immigrant European craftsmen worked in the furniture industry in the nineteenth century. Within the more than 3,000 cabinetmaker shops in New York City in 1855, at least 61 percent of the employees were German by birth. Other cities boasted significant numbers of German craftsmen as well, with more than 550 cabinetmakers and turners of German origin in Philadelphia in 1850. With such high numbers, it seems likely that Biedermeier designs were well known in American workshops. 5
Close examination of one of the Winterthur chairs yields an intriguing notation scrawled in pencil on the bottom of a seat rail. It reads “36 Bond St” and was perhaps a note intended for a delivery man. Whether this marking refers to Bond Street in New York is unclear, but a Bond Street address in the city is consistent with the high quality and exotic design of these chairs. The first house at 36 Bond Street was constructed in 1833 for Samuel B. Ruggles, a prominent lawyer and politician involved in the development of NewYork’s railroad network. Perhaps best remembered as the donor of the land now known as Gramercy Park, Ruggles also represented the United States at several assemblies and conferences in Europe. 6
In 1839 he sold the Bond Street town house to Abraham Schermerhorn, a politician, businessman, and partner in the shipping company of P. & A. Schermerhorn. Well-connected in New York City, Schermerhorn’s daughters married members of the city’s elite, with one becoming Mrs. William B. Astor. Ownership of these chairs by either family seems plausible, as they could have afforded furniture of this quality and were likely familiar with Biedermeier designs through their business connections in Europe.
Early nineteenth-century New York was considered an architectural backwater, a connotation that changed with a series of construction projects in the 1820s and 1830s.With the growth of commerce and industry in lower Manhattan, wealthier residents began moving uptown toward Washington Square, Bleecker Street, and Bond Street, expressing their sophisticated aesthetic tastes in architecture through handsome town houses. James Silk Buckingham took note of these new dwellings while visiting from England in the late 1830s: “The interior of the principal houses may be described as spacious, handsome, and luxurious, with lofty passages, good staircases, large rooms, and costly and gorgeous furniture.”7 Such homes were ideal for entertaining and typically followed a double-parlor floor plan. Frequently called drawing rooms, the parlors were often separated by pocket doors that, when opened, created a large room ideal for social functions. Hosts could also adapt the space by closing the doors and removing or inserting furniture in various configurations. With heavily abraded backs, Winterthur’s chairs appear to have been moved frequently and were likely placed against walls when not in use.
As purchased by Henry Francis du Pont, these two chairs were part of a set of six, and one can only hypothesize as to how the set may have functioned in its original context. Six chairs would likely be too few for use at a dining table, though one cannot be certain that the six purchased by du Pont were not once part of a larger set. It seems probable that the Winterthur chairs were intended for a parlor setting, where they would be well-suited for tea and socializing. Whether constructed in Europe or America, these two chairs are particularly striking examples of nineteenth-century domestic furniture representing a preference for fashion and novelty in interior design.
Their Biedermeier design illustrates the austere refinement and worldly taste of their owners and highlights the diverse decorative tastes of an American consumer market.
Post by Willie Granston is a Lois F. McNeil Fellow in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture.