Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

American Furniture, 1730–1790: Queen Anne and Chippendale Styles

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During the second quarter of the eighteenth century, the bold turnings, attenuated proportions, and dynamic surfaces of the Early Baroque, or William and Mary, style were subdued in favor of gracefully curved outlines, classical proportions, and restrained surface ornamentation. This new style, variously called late Baroque, early Georgian, or Queen Anne, was a blend of several influences, including Baroque, classical, and Asian.


By the 1780s the sweeping curves of the late Baroque and the exuberant ornament of the Rococo were giving way to a renewed interest in classical precedents, which found expression in the delicate, rectilinear forms of the Neoclassical, or Federal, style.

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Boston was the leading colonial city in the early eighteenth century and the first to implement aspects of the new style. "Crooked" or S-curved chair backs, which conformed to the shape of the sitter's spine, first appeared there in the 1720s. This feature was borrowed from Asian designs and reflected a growing concern for comfort in the period. By the 1730s Boston makers had developed a standard chair form with a vase-shaped splat and S-curved cabriole legs (46.192.2). With their rounded outlines, chairs of this type represented a dramatic departure from the stiff, straight chair backs of the preceding eras.


Boston makers produced thousands of Queen Anne-style chairs for export and sold them to other colonies as part of the inter-coastal trade. In Philadelphia, craftsmen responded to competition from Boston imports by developing distinctive seating forms with more elaborately curved lines (62.171.21). Revealing the Late Baroque emphasis on negative space, the solid splat and the flanking stiles were carefully designed so as to produce a gracefully curved void between them.


Case furniture in the Late Baroque style became more architectural, with proportions and ornament derived from Renaissance precedents. New translations of Andrea Palladio's Four Books of Architecture (1570) provided craftsmen with formulas for determining proper proportions while offering a range of classically inspired ornament. By the 1730s Boston makers were incorporating cabriole legs and broken-scroll pediments into high chests of drawers (10.125.62). This standard Boston form was adapted and refined elsewhere in the colonies. In Newport, Rhode Island, cabinetmakers integrated distinctive scrolls and scalloped shells into the skirts of high chests and dressing tables. Whereas Boston cabriole legs were somewhat stiff and vertical, Newport makers favored more curvilinear legs that terminated in pointed slipper feet (1994.449).


One notable exception to the subdued ornamentation of Queen Anne–style furniture is japanning, a technique developed in the West to imitate Asian lacquerwork. In Boston and New York, late Baroque forms were painted with fantastical scenes of the Far East known as "chinoiserie" (10.125.58). Although this form of decoration originated during the William and Mary period, it remained popular through the 1750s.


Intercoastal trade brought fine Virginia and Pennsylvania black walnut within reach of craftsmen throughout New England and the Middle Atlantic, and it was the most popular wood in the Queen Anne period (1730–60). Walnut was often stained to resemble imported Caribbean mahogany, which became the wood of choice during the subsequent Chippendale, or Rococo, era (1755–90).


The publication of Thomas Chippendale's The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director (1754) reflected the growing influence of the French Rococo style, which found expression in America in overlays of playful, naturalistic carving (2007.302a-c). Chippendale did not invent the richly carved style that now bears his name; rather, he codified the reigning fashion in England for creative blends of Gothic, Asian, and French Rococo designs.


Chairs in the Chippendale style became more rectilinear, with square seat frames, straight stiles, and outward-flaring "ears" at the top corners. Claw-and-ball feet with sharply articulated talons replaced the smooth contours of pad and slipper feet. Back splats, formerly solid and unornamented, came to be pierced and intricately carved with foliage and interlaced patterns (57.158.1).


In case furniture the Chippendale style was an extension of the Queen Anne: in Philadelphia, for example, traditional Baroque forms such as the high chest of drawers were updated with carved Rococo ornament (18.110.6). In New England, where the influence of immigrant craftsmen was minimal, cabinetmakers relied primarily on shaped facades rather than on ornamental carving to impart visual interest (10.125.81a; 2001.644).


Leisure activities became more commonplace in the late colonial period, a result of greater prosperity and the widespread pursuit of refinement. To satisfy demand, cabinetmakers produced specialized furniture forms such as tables for playing cards and taking tea. These pieces increasingly took on bold three-dimensional shapes and often rested on leaf-carved cabriole legs ending in claw feet (25.115.31; 67.114.1).


By the 1750s, Philadelphia had surpassed Boston as the largest colonial city. Immigrant artisans trained in the latest European fashions created lavish interiors and furnishings for the Georgian-style homes of Philadelphia's mercantile elite (Powel Room). New York also benefited from a surge in immigration in the years preceding the Revolution. Artisans there catered to the Loyalist sympathies of their patrons by closely following English forms, such as the five-legged card table, and the chest-on-chest (47.35; 64.249.3). By contrast, the most original American furniture was made in Newport, Rhode Island, where native-born cabinetmakers held sway. Led by members of the Townsend and Goddard families, Newport cabinetmakers developed a distinctive local style epitomized by block-and-shell case pieces that have no known parallel in European furniture or contemporary pattern books (15.21.2).


The transition from Queen Anne to Chippendale furniture in the colonies was neither immediate nor universal. Outside the major cities, the change was gradual and, at times, imperceptible. Late Baroque forms remained extremely popular, and gracefully curved pieces with restrained surface ornament continued to be produced well after the Revolution. Nevertheless, by the 1780s the sweeping curves of the late Baroque and the exuberant ornament of the Rococo were giving way to a renewed interest in classical precedents, which found expression in the delicate, rectilinear forms of the Neoclassical, or Federal, style.

Nicholas C. Vincent
Department of American Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art