Sit Down!: Chairs from Six Centuries

BY LAURA F. SPRAGUE

Sit Down! Chairs from Six Centuries (21 October, 2010–16 January, 2011) at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, celebrates one of the most useful objects found wherever people gather. Sit Down! considers broad stylistic trends in European and American furniture from 1470 to the present, including Gothic, rococo, neoclassical, the revivals and reforms of the nineteenth century, and the American studio movement of the twentieth century. The exhibition examines the evolution of style, the nature of technological innovation, and the social meaning of seating furniture. Works on display are from the museum’s collection, with important loans of works by Samuel Gragg, Gustave Herter, Josef Hoffmann, Marcel Breuer, and Robert Venturi. Paintings, portraits, and pattern books complement the selection and establish cultural context.

An opening reception on Thursday, October 21, 2010, at 5:30 p.m. is free and open to the public. Gallery talks focusing on historic styles, conservation, and contemporary furniture making, will be offered throughout the duration of the exhibition. On November 5, 2010, Edward S. Cooke, Jr., Charles F. Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts at Yale University, will deliver a lecture entitled Beyond Necessity: Chairness and the Myths of Function. For more information, please contact the Bowdoin College Museum of Art at 207.725.3275 or by email to: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
Fig. 1: French joined chair, 1470–1525. Oak.
Gift of Herbert H. Richardson and the Estate of Curtis
Appleton Perry, Bowdoin Class of 1877. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine (1931.14).

The word “chair” descended from the Latin “cathedra,” a seat of authority for a bishop or teacher. Between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, chairs saw marked stylistic refinement. Specialization persisted throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods even as a wider range of seating furniture began to appear in the houses of nobility. This early French chair demonstrates the architectural qualities of seating furniture during the period with its elaborate carved Gothic tracery derived from cathedrals and churches. Close examination reveals it was once brightly painted and probably gilded. Linen-fold carving on the sides and lower panels reveals the value placed on costly textiles.

 

Fig. 2: Joined great chair attributed to William Searle
(1634–1667), active in Ipswich, Mass., 1663–1667. Oak.
Gift of Ephraim Wilder Farley, Bowdoin Class of 1836.
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine (1872.1).

The chair collection at Bowdoin began in 1872 with the arrival of this extraordinary joined great chair. Used for many years as the president’s chair at commencement, it is now recognized as among the nation’s finest examples of seventeenth-century furniture. An English-trained joiner, Searle (1634–1667) is believed to have produced this magnificent chair for his own household in Puritan Massachusetts. After his death in 1667, his widow married joiner Thomas Dennis (1638–1706), who like Searle, was from Devonshire, England. Dennis moved to Ipswich from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and took over Searle’s workshop, and it is through the Dennis family that the chair descended. The handsomely carved ornament, with anthropomorphic figures decorating the stiles, is based on Renaissance and Baroque strapwork seen on furniture from the region in which Searle trained.
Fig. 3. John Singleton Copley, American, (1738–1815),
Portrait of Benjamin Hallowell, 1765–1768. Oil on canvas, 50⅛ x 39⅞ inches. Lent by the Colby College Museum of Art; Gift of the Vaughan Family of Maine, by deed of gift shared by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art and the Colby College Museum of Art (51.1986).

During the eighteenth century an expanding world economy based on trade, shipping, and manufacturing created a rising middle class eager to signal their status. The Hallowells of Boston were one such American family. Not only was Benjamin Hallowell depicted by New England’s leading colonial artist, but the elegantly attired gentleman was also displaying his wealth through the fabrics, among the most expensive materials within a household. In addition to his clothes, the side chair in which he is seated is upholstered
in a lush imported English covering, which further underscores his affluence.
Fig. 4: English side chair (one of a pair), 1700–1725. Walnut veneer, oak, with original needlework upholstery. Gift of H. Ray Dennis. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine (1978.9.1).

This English side chair was influenced by Dutch and French furniture with their fine veneers. Simple yet elegant features include a scrolled crest rail, carved shells on the cabriole legs, and an unusual curved stretcher. Its original needlework upholstery depicts the Sacrifice of Isaac, an Old Testament story often selected for ladies’ fine handwork. These chairs descended in the Dennis family, as did Searle’s joined great chair (Fig. 2), but it is not known whether this pair was owned by the family in early eighteenth-century Massachusetts or was acquired at a later time.
Fig. 5: Armchair attributed to John Jelliff & Co., Newark, N.J., 1865–1870. Rosewood, walnut and reproduction upholstery. Museum Purchase. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine (1975.19).

Sets of seating furniture were designed during the Victorian era for specific rooms in a house. This armchair was originally part of a set of either six or eight pieces, and its size indicates it would have been intended only for the head of household, much like the Searle great chair in figure 2 was intended. Featured prominently is the newly introduced coil-spring seat construction. This technological innovation revolutionized chair design and upholstery techniques, bringing added comfort and luxury to fashion-conscience upper and the new middle class eager to show status.
Fig. 6: Harry Fenn, American (1845–1911), The Interior of Walker and Bro. Counting Room, 17 Merchant’s Row, Boston, 1893. Ink, wash on paper, 13 x 17 ½ inches. Bequest of Miss Mary Sophia Walker. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine (1904.34).

The two circa 1830 Boston armchairs shown in this 1890s painting furnished the mercantile offices of Theophilus Walker, also owner of Gore Place, Waltham, Massachusetts. His nieces dedicated Bowdoin’s Walker Art Building in his name (now the home of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art). That these handsome but out-of-date dining chairs figured so prominently in Walker’s place of business between 1850 and his death forty years later reveals his appreciation for their classical aesthetic and regard for their history. One chair was donated to Bowdoin in 1896 by Walker’s nieces and heirs.

Fig. 7: Side chair, Herter Brothers, New York, N.Y., ca. 1882. Rosewood, satinwood inlay, and reproduction upholstery. Museum purchase, Elizabeth B. G. Hamlin Fund. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine (1975.8).

This fine example of American Aesthetic Movement furniture was made for the extravagant William H. Vanderbilt mansion in New York, which took up an entire city block. The German-born Herter Brothers, Gustave (1830–1898) and Christian (1839–1883), were furniture makers as well as the leading interior decorators of the Gilded Age; Vanderbilt was their largest client. The beautiful figured dark rosewood of this chair is ornamented with inlaid satinwood flowers in the Japonesque taste, a popular aesthetic after Japan’s participation in the 1876 Centennial. The fascination, or “cult of Japan,” was in particular favor during the 1870s and 1880s, the time at which the brothers were decorating the Vanderbilt residence.
Fig. 8: Armchair, Gustav Stickley, American, (1858–1942), ca. 1899–1916. Oak. Bears fragments of original paper label on underside of seat. Transfer from Bowdoin College. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine (118.2010.2).

Some chairs originally acquired for use in Bowdoin College campus buildings are now valued for their Arts and Crafts aesthetics. One such set of two armchairs and ten side chairs dates from between 1899 and 1916 and were made at Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Workshops in upstate New York. Historic college photographs reveal their early use, for a time, in the college’s Sargent Gymnasium; their sturdy construction and no-frills aesthetic apparently suited the rugged environment. It was the “honest,” solid craftsmanship that was appealing in their day as well, born out of a desire to highlight the craft aspect of construction in contrast to the mass marketed furniture of the Victorian era.
Fig. 9: Cross check™ armchair, Frank Gehry, Canadian-American (b. 1929), designed 1992. Laminated maple. Gift of Coco Kim and Richard Schetman, parents of Elizabeth Schetman, Bowdoin College Class of 2013. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine (2010.36).

A hockey fan, Frank Gehry designed his cross check™ armchair as part of a collection named after terms used in the game. He named others after the hat trick, high sticking, and the power play. The thin strips also relate to the shape of hockey sticks. This chair is an especially appropriate choice for Bowdoin College where that icy sport reigns in winter. Gehry’s bentwood design, inspired by the apple crates he knew in childhood recalls innovative chairs of the nineteenth century, such as Samuel Gragg’s bentwood “elastic chair” of 1808.
Fig. 10: Dining chairs in Gropius House dining area, Marcel Breuer, American, born Hungary, (1902–1981), 1939. Tubular steel and canvas. Courtesy, Historic New England; Bequest of Isa Gropius (1984.99.1). Photography by David Bohl.

In 1919 a group of artists, architects, and designers led by Walter Gropius (1883–1969) started the innovative Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany. As the school evolved, tubular steel, laminated plywood, and plastic resins—developed for industrial use—replaced traditional wood and upholstery and created a new ahistorical approach to designing “interior equipment,” as the architect Le Corbusier designated furniture. Gropius left Germany in 1934 to escape the Nazi regime, and in 1937 relocated to Lincoln, Massachusetts. He was soon joined by one-time student, instructor at the Bauhaus’ Dessau school, and then colleague, Marcel Breuer (1902–1981), who taught alongside Gropius at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and built a house next door to him in Lincoln. While in Germany, Breuer had been head of the furniture workshop in Dessau and was in charge of designing furniture for the school buildings, including the masters’, and director’s houses, the latter of which was for Gropius. When Gropius moved to Lincoln, he brought the furniture with him, including these dining chairs. They are superb examples of the Bauhaus philosophy. It takes a highly innovative approach to its design rather than regimented and following earlier aesthetic sources. Its clean, industrial design, with form following function, endures today. One will be on view in Sit Down!

Laura F. Sprague is consulting curator of decorative arts, Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Unless noted, digital photography by Peter Siegel.
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