Classicism & American Classical Furniture
American formal classical furniture was a uniquely American interpretation of English and French furniture designs of the late 18th and early 19th century. It was made by designers and cabinetmakers, often of European origin and training, in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, the principal formal furniture making centers of the new American Republic between 1790 and 1840.
The fervor for classical antiquity swept across Europe and the British Isles after the discovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the second quarter of the 18th century. Fascination with classical architecture, sculpture and the dress and furniture depicted in ancient frescos and antique vases influenced every aspect of the fine, applied and decorative arts for the next century.
In England classicism was espoused by the Scottish architect and arbiter of taste, Robert Adam, and furniture designers George Hepplewhite, Thomas Sheraton and Thomas Hope. In France, Percier and Fontaine, designers to Napoleon, were its leading exponents. The pattern books and design directories that they published as well as wealthy Americans traveling in Europe were largely responsible for the spread of this "new" aesthetic to America.
In America, the fifty year period is divided in half stylistically. The first half of the period, influenced by the Roman-inspired Adam, Hepplewhite and Sheraton styles, is known as "Federal" as it corresponds to the formative years of the United States 1790-1815. These pieces are delicate, refined and employ the use of contrasting inlays of light and exotic woods as decorative elements.
The second half begins the period of French influence in American furniture for the first time in our history. Encompassing Directoire, Empire and Restauration styles, this furniture, inspired more by Greek and Egyptian models, is architectonic, often zoomorphic and anthropomorphic, gilt and bronze decorated and relies on the use of highly figured mahogany veneers.
The preeminent cabinetmakers of each city developed his own distinctive style which often became associated with his city. In Boston the John and Thomas Seymour, Isaac Vose and Emmons & Archibald were patronized by the wealthy and cultured. Baltimore is famous for its paint decorated pieces made by the firm of John and Hugh Finlay. Philadelphia's reigning designers were Ephraim Haines, Henry Connelly, Anthony Quervelle, Joseph Barry, and Michael Bouvier. New York boasted the work of French emegré Charles-Honoré Lannuier and, the most famous and influential of all, the Scottish born, Duncan Phyfe.Classicism in America has recently become the focus of serious collectors and museums, with four major museum exhibitions dedicated to it having occurred since 1993. The market for the finest pieces has jumped significantly and new scholarship (e.g. Mr. Berlin's article entitled "Solid and Permanent Grandeur: The Design Roots of American Classical Furniture" in the catalogue for the International Antiques Fair October 2001) has fueled a broader understanding in what is, arguably, the most important, most popular and most influential period of American creativity and craftsmanship in its furniture making history.