More than Meets the Eye: American Furniture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley—
After several years of research and writing, the first publication on the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s revered collection of American furniture dating from 1650 to 1840 has arrived. Focusing only on the highlights—297 to be exact—this catalogue is debuting long after the publication of similar volumes on the furniture collections of our peer institutions. But waiting has had its advantages, allowing me to take into account new developments in the field, current research methods (the internet and digital resources chief among them), and recent acquisitions, and to present newly conserved furniture in the best possible way. The book’s striking photographs and chic design have attracted many who are new to the subject, while providing devotees of American furniture with cause for celebration and new perspectives.
The catalogue’s organization adopts a fresh approach. Rather than arranging furniture by form (chairs, tables, chests, etc.), as is typical, the presentation is roughly chronologically within geographical regions to honor the way artisans approached the sculptural art of furniture making—as pairs and sets and suites. And the provenances—made more complete through access to digital genealogical resources—include both the men and the women who owned the furniture, no longer giving often-longer-lived partners short shrift.
Philadelphia was the most active center of furniture making on the continent from the late 1600s through the mid-1800s, and Philadelphia-made pieces not only occupy a place of honor in the study of American furniture but also comprise the lion’s share of the museum’s collection. One particular Philadelphia-made high chest, presented in the museum’s 1924 exhibition on the “greats” of colonial Philadelphia furniture, caused a sensation. Made between 1765 and 1775, the chest shares the general profile of this quintessentially American form, but its central lower drawer is carved not with the typical scallop shell, but with the “moment of truth” from Aesop’s fable of “The Fox and the Grapes.”
The rest of the decoration further announces that this is more than the usual high chest: acanthus fronds issue from the ends of the scroll pediment; a garniture of vases overflowing with flowers forms the central shield and flanking finials; garlands of flowers descend from a ring at the top of the quarter columns; a frothy wave of scroll-like foliage runs along the lower rail; and the curvy legs seem to buckle under the weight of it all. The mahogany chosen for the case has a deep, rich figure that adds understated excitement, especially to the notably expansive drawer fronts, which are set off by pierced brass plates behind the bails.
The enthusiasm in 1924 over this extraordinary high chest marked the beginning of almost a century of furniture lovers celebrating its magnificence. The museum worked hard to convince the owner, Mrs. Mary Fell Howe, to keep it on loan beyond the exhibition. She did this, as an annually renewing loan that her daughter threatened to renege on each year, until in the 1930s she finally made good on her threat. In the meantime, the high chest had become the centerpiece of the American art galleries since the opening of the museum’s new Fairmount building in 1928, though much of its history remained unknown. Mrs. Howe knew nothing of its original owners or the artisans who made it. She and her husband had inherited the chest from his father, who had purchased it in Reading, Pennsylvania, in about 1871. And what of its dressing table, the pendant to any high chest? Its location was revealed in 1935, when it was published as plate 118 by William MacPherson Hornor (with his then-wife, Marian) in The Blue Book of Philadelphia Furniture.
Miss Eliza Davids, who had inherited the dressing table, owned it when it was illustrated in 1935. In 1947 the dealer Joseph K. Kindig of York, Pennsylvania, purchased it from her for his private collection, though this was not generally known (Kindig would hint at but then deny owning it in subsequent years). The high chest, meanwhile, was finally donated to the museum in 1957, by Mrs. Howe’s daughter Amy Howe Steel Greenough—a momentous occasion that placed it in direct conversation with the recently purchased and elaborate icon of the wealth of Pennsylvania’s Germanic settlers, a 1779 Kleiderschrank (or clothes press) made for a Georg Huber. But the dressing table remained elusive. After Kindig’s death in 1971, however, his three children loaned it to the museum for the Bicentennial celebration of 1976. Seen together with its high chest for that occasion, as they were conceived and designed to be, the two magnified each other, the compact dressing table, carved with the same scene from Aesop’s fable, emphasizing the grandeur of the high chest. The pair was made for a bed chamber, and the top of the dressing table would have fit under the room’s chair rail, while the mid-molding above the lower case of the high chest fit above it. Designed as foils, they were separated early on—probably in about 1784 when the city comptroller James Milligan signed the back of the high chest, which suggests that it was sold at auction to support the war effort.
In 2011 Kindig’s heirs offered the dressing table to the museum. In a bold testament to its commitment to American furniture, the museum agreed to purchase it, prompting not only a campaign that engaged more than fifty donors, but also a spate of new research on the significance of Aesop’s fable of “The Fox and the Grapes” and the history of the pair.
When the high chest and dressing table were separated in the 1780s, the original owners were not recorded and, consequently, neither were the artisans who made and carved them. The high chest’s history between 1784 and about 1871 is unknown. Miss Davids inherited the dressing table from one of her parents, who were both descendants of the prominent Quakers Samuel Morris (1734–1812) and Rebecca Wistar Morris (1735–1791), who now emerge as the possible original owners of the pair. As members of the Quaker faith, prohibited from reading fiction, including ancient mythology, the Morrises would have been encouraged to read Aesop’s parable-like tales involving cunning animals whose actions reveal moral truths. Copies of the book could be found in colonial Philadelphia libraries and were advertised for sale by Philadelphia booksellers. The 18th-century translation of “The Fox and the Grapes” tells of a proud fox that is unable to reach a bunch of grapes and so decries them as unripe; thus the tale celebrates restraint and warns against the evils of greed and worldly desires. This fitting Quaker message might seem ironic on these elaborate emblems of opulence, but the Quaker concept of “plainness” referred to plainness of spirit defined not by avoiding splendid things (like carved mahogany case furniture) but by valuing spiritual well-being over worldly goods. That the original owners perhaps sold the high chest as a contribution toward the war effort suggests that they valued the men fighting for freedom over their personal enjoyment and resolved to keep only the more modest dressing table.
Scholars have long speculated about the identity of the pair’s cabinetmaker and carver. A comprehensive examination of high chests and dressing tables (see www.philafurniture.com) made in Philadelphia between 1740 and 1775 showed that the Fox and Grapes pairing shares its proportions, rail design, leg shape, and decorative vocabulary with only one other dressing table, now at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. This is a singular instance, since all other high chests and dressing tables can be grouped together to form identifiable clusters clusters representing the work of distinct cabinetmaking and carving shops. As continued study reveals a growing list of carvers working in colonial Philadelphia, the design and execution of this carving still cannot be comfortably associated with the work of one carver or group of carvers, whose primary work was typically architectural in nature. Looking ahead, that provides an avenue for further study.
It is highly unusual for furniture makers to sign their work, encouraging us to appreciate anonymous artisans and rely on our personal sense of what our eye favors rather than responding to a name or label. This paucity of signed furniture makes another type of chest in the museum’s collection, a double chest (or chest on chest) signed by the cabinetmaker Thomas Gross Jr. (1775–1839) in about 1805–10, all the more unusual.
That Thomas Gross was a freed Black cabinetmaker working in early 19th-century Philadelphia makes it all the more extraordinary. The number of enslaved and free people of African descent who made, carved, painted, ornamented, or otherwise contributed to furniture making in colonial North America is impossible to determine because their work was almost always anonymous—and often conscripted. Under the flowing script of his signature, Gross defined his role—“Maker”—leaving this chest not only as a tribute to his own artistry, but also as a testament to the many Black artisans in early America, both free and enslaved.
Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley is the Montgomery-Garvan Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.