Master Cabinetmaker in New York
December 20, 2011–May 6, 2012
In the early 1800s, furniture from the workshop of New York City cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854) was in such demand that he was referred to as the "United States Rage." This exhibition—the first retrospective on Phyfe in ninety years—re-introduces this artistic and influential master cabinetmaker to a contemporary audience.
The full chronological sweep of Phyfe's distinguished career is featured, including examples of his best-known furniture based on the English Regency designs of Thomas Sheraton, work from the middle and later stages of his career when he adopted the richer "archaeological" antique style of the 1820s, and a highly refined, plain Grecian style based on French Restauration prototypes. The exhibition brings together nearly one hundred works from private and public collections throughout the United States. Highlights of the exhibition include some never-before-seen documented masterpieces and furniture descended directly in the Phyfe family, as well as the cabinetmaker's own tool chest.
Organized chronologically, the exhibition presents the cabinetmaker's life and work through drawings, documents, personal possession, and furniture. Portraits of his clients and contemporary depictions of New York City street scenes and domestic interiors provide a glimpse into Phyfe's milieu.
A poor immigrant when he arrived in America from his native Scotland, Phyfe acquired wealth and fame through hard work and exceptional talent. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century he made Neoclassical furniture for the social and mercantile elite of New York, Philadelphia, and the American South. His personal style, characterized by superior proportions, balance, symmetry, and restraint, became the New York local style. Many apprentices and journeymen exposed to this distinctive style by serving a stint in the Phyfe shop or by copying the master cabinetmaker's designs helped to create and sustain this local school of cabinetmaking. Demand for Phyfe's work reached its peak between 1805 and 1820, and he remained a dominant figure in the trade until 1847, when he retired at the age of seventy-seven. Within the short span of a single generation, however, the work of the master cabinetmaker was all but forgotten.
Because Phyfe's furniture was seldom signed, yet widely imitated, it is sometimes difficult to determine with accuracy which works he actually made. The exhibition breaks new ground by matching rare bills of sale and similar documents with furniture whose history of ownership is known, thereby codifying his style over time.
A video featuring many of the techniques used in the Phyfe workshop to create his furniture masterpieces, including veneering, turning, carving, and gilding is shown within the exhibition.
Read more about Duncan Phyfe on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.