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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

American Federal-Era Period Rooms

The three decades that followed the formation of the United States are referred to as the Federal era in recognition of the early development of the national government. The style of houses and furnishings created during this period was heavily influenced by the Neoclassical designs favored in Great Britain since the 1760s, which stemmed from a renewed interest in classical Greece and Rome. The interiors discussed below are from houses built in the Federal period in Haverhill, Massachusetts; Baltimore, Maryland; and Richmond, Virginia. They suggest the varied regional interpretation of the Neoclassical style in America and are furnished with a broad range of decorative arts, from woven carpets to cut-glass chandeliers to porcelain vases, that wealthy householders of the period would have purchased to suggest their awareness of the current vogue for ornament borrowed from antiquity.

While the interpretation of American Neoclassicism differed from one Atlantic coast city to the next, it typically drew from common sources. Architectural designs were introduced abroad by the Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728–1792) and widely disseminated in America through publications such as William Pain’s Practical Builder (1774). In a similar fashion, furniture in the English Neoclassical style was publicized in George Hepplewhite’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (1788) and Thomas Sheraton’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book (1793), both widely referenced by American cabinetmakers throughout the country. The clean lines, delicate forms, geometric shapes, contrasting veneers, and decorative inlays of Federal-period furniture represent a dramatic shift away from the sinuous Rococo carving that had typified American decorative arts for the previous thirty years and found in period rooms from the second half of the eighteenth century.

The Haverhill Room
The Haverhill Room (12.121) is from a house built for James Duncan Jr. (1756–1822) in 1805. Haverhill, Massachusetts, is located thirty miles northwest of Boston and emerged in the late eighteenth century as an industrial center for the milling of lumber and wheat as well as for distilling, shipbuilding, textile manufacturing, and leather processing. Located on the Merrimack River, with direct access to the Atlantic Ocean, Haverhill also became an important port for foreign and domestic trade. Duncan grew wealthy as a partner in the shipping and mercantile business begun by his father, James Duncan Sr. (1726–1818).

Financial success allowed the younger Duncan to build an elegant house in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Its interior represents the variant of Neoclassical style that prevailed in eastern Massachusetts. The delicate composition ornament and mahogany pilasters on the mantel are important signifiers of this architectural mode. There are also echoes of ancient Greece and Rome in such decorative motifs as urns draped with fabric, festoons of flowers, and Etruscan scrolls. The design of the Duncans’ overmantel and the blind-fretwork frieze in the cornice were likely taken from Pain’s Practical Builder. The fourth edition of Pain’s treatise was printed in Boston in 1792 and would have been readily available to the builder of the Duncan House.

According to family history, James Duncan Jr. experienced a reversal of fortune on account of British blockades during the War of 1812. Despite his financial losses, the Duncan family continued to occupy the house for two more decades. Finally, in 1832, Duncan’s widow Rebekah moved out, relocating to another house in Haverhill. She first leased the property and then sold it to William H. Brown, who transformed it into a tavern and inn known as the Eagle House. After the demolition of the Eagle House Inn in 1911 to make way for a movie theater, Mrs. F. W. Wallace, an antiquarian from Haverhill, arranged for the architectural elements to be sold to the Metropolitan Museum.

Although furnished as a bedroom, the room was used by the Duncans as a formal parlor. Curators altered the interior’s function to provide an appropriate backdrop for the American Wing’s strong collection of New England furniture of this era, particularly a remarkable bed (18.110.64) attributed to the Boston cabinetmaker Thomas Seymour (1771–1848). The carved mahogany bedposts and painted and gilt cornice likely represent the collaboration of highly talented artisans contracted by Seymour.

Also on view in the Haverhill Room is an easy chair (31.53.3) designed after plate 15 in Hepplewhite’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (1788). Easy chairs, frequently used in bedrooms, were associated with the elderly and the infirm, for whom the cushions and wings provided comfort and warmth. Furthermore, the seats of many easy chairs (1993.31) were fitted with a ceramic or pewter bowl to allow their owners to use them as commodes, as seen in an example from Philadelphia.

The Baltimore Room
The Baltimore Room (18.101.1–.4) comes from a townhouse built between 1810 and 1811 for the Baltimore, Maryland, merchant and shipowner Henry Craig (1767–1823). Following the American Revolution, Baltimore emerged as a major Atlantic port. The city’s commercial success was manifested in the extensive development of its residential neighborhoods. With access to agricultural products and timber from the American interior and imports from Europe and Asia, Craig and his counterparts in the mercantile and shipping industries grew wealthy from the steady transatlantic trade.

Although it served as the Craig family’s parlor, the Museum has always furnished the space as a dining room. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, Americans began dedicating a specific room to dining, which they used in conjunction with a formal parlor for entertaining guests. The geometric shapes found in the interior woodwork are excellent examples of the adoption and adaptation of the English Neoclassical style in the Federal period. Unlike the elaborate, fully paneled fireplace walls of eighteenth-century homes, decorative woodwork in the Baltimore Room is limited to the mantel, the door and window surrounds, and the dado in the recessed alcoves. All of the elements were crafted entirely from pine.

As Baltimore’s economy flourished in the late eighteenth century, an active community of artisans developed there. Skilled cabinetmakers provided local householders with elegant tables, chairs, and sideboards that were accompanied by imported ceramics and glassware as well as luxury wares from Baltimore silversmiths. Large two- or three-piece dining tables (19.13.2) came into vogue in the United States toward the close of the eighteenth century. Unlike a bulky sideboard (45.77) that tended to remain in one location, a dining table with drop leaves could be conveniently stored against the wall when not in use. The inlaid eagle in an oval reserve seen at the top of each table leg is a motif common to Baltimore furniture in the Neoclassical style.

The table is covered by now-partial dinner services of porcelain and glass imported from France and England, respectively. The porcelain set (1994.480.1a,b–.16) was manufactured in Paris, but it was clearly intended for the American market. Motifs such as the Native American figure and the American flag would have appealed to patriotic consumers celebrating the United States’s emergence as a powerful nation. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Monroe, and other prominent statesmen and diplomats purchased French porcelain services of this kind.

William Bayard (1761–1826) ordered the cut-glass service (2008.594.1a,b–.54a,b) in 1818 for his daughter Harriet (1799–1875) and her husband Stephen Van Rensselaer IV (1789–1868) from Pellatt & Green, London’s premier glasshouse. The set originally included dozens of drinking glasses, for claret, ale, and champagne, as well as decanters, wine coolers, tumblers, and finger glasses, all “elegantly cut in diamonds & Rings” according to the surviving bill of sale.

When the Museum purchased the Baltimore Room in 1918, the house was owned by Louis and Crescentia Cuneo. Louis was a first-generation American citizen born to Italian immigrants. Crescentia was a naturalized German immigrant who came to the United States in the 1880s. At the time of the acquisition, Louis Cuneo was working as a foreman in Baltimore’s shipyards, and he was one of the few homeowners in what was a largely Italian neighborhood. Although the Cuneos sold the interior woodwork to the Museum, they did appreciate its historical value. When Mrs. Cuneo moved out of the house in 1928, she wrote to the Metropolitan to express her fear of seeing “this old building with some of its old beauty go to wreck or be torn down for some factory.” Her fears came true, and the building was converted to commercial space until its demolition in the 1950s.

The Richmond Room
One of the most spectacular period rooms in the American Wing, the Richmond Room (68.137) offers a glimpse of the grandeur of early nineteenth-century domestic life as it was lived by affluent Americans. From a house built between 1810 and 1811 for the Richmond lawyer William Clayton Williams (1768–1817), the room’s most notable features are its rich mahogany woodwork and blue-and-gray King of Prussia marble baseboards.

When Richmond became the capital of Virginia in 1779, the small town blossomed into a thriving city. It grew from just a few hundred residents to 13,000 by 1817. The city’s location at the westernmost navigable point of the James River was key to its growth. Access to the river made Richmond an important manufacturing center and trading hub.

The Williams House was constructed during a building boom in Richmond that drew a large number of talented carpenters, ornamental-plaster workers, and decorative painters who created lavish interiors with decorative woodwork and ornate plaster ceilings. The paneling and applied ornament were carved from solid mahogany, an expensive hardwood imported from the Caribbean and Central America. Theophilous Nash executed much of the remarkable woodwork in this room and carved his name into the top of one doorway. As with the builder of the Haverhill Room, he worked in the style of established English tastemakers, such as William Pain, and may have based his design for the anthemia on the Richmond Room’s door surrounds on plate 43 in Pain’s Practical Builder (1792). The modern wallpaper featuring scenes of Paris is a reproduction of the type sold in the United States in the 1810s.

Most of the furnishings in the Richmond Room were made in New York City. Although Richmond supported a vibrant cabinetmaking community in the early nineteenth century, wealthy Southerners regularly imported furniture from the North. The tables and seating furniture on view follow patterns in an archaeologically correct antique taste that superseded the Neoclassical style and was strongly influenced by French design. Furnishings continued to feature motifs from ancient Greece and Rome, but they were incorporated as three-dimensional elements such as carved wood figures or applied brass ornament rather than the two-dimensional inlay that typified the Federal style.

The Italian mantel (1999.126) of white marble in not original to the room but offers an essay on the adaption of classical ornament in the new antique taste. The two female figures supporting the shelf are known as terms. The inner surround is carved with torches, paterae, anthemia, and lion’s heads—motifs commonly found in classical art and architecture. The carved tablet at the center of the mantel shows the Greek hero (and Roman god) Hercules at rest. Beside him are his attributes, the lion skin and the club.

A pair of card tables (1995.377.1) in the Richmond Room descended in the family of Stephen and Harriet Bayard Van Rensselaer IV, the same couple that owned the glass service in the Baltimore Room. The carved caryatids on these tables are bold and forthright and meant to attract attention from across the room. The figures, with their stylized inner wings, relate to the winged orb of Egypt, the symbol of the rising sun, and signify the adaptation of ancient Egyptian motifs in early nineteenth-century design. Conservation work on one of the tables revealed two inscriptions written in the hand of the New York City furniture maker Charles-Honoré Lannuier (1779–1819). Both inscriptions include the date 1817, the year in which Stephen and Harriet were married.

The curule shape of the legs of the sofa and chairs (60.4.4)—also called a “Grecian cross” frame—found in the Richmond Room is based on an ancient Roman magistrate’s folding chair. Formed by two intersecting S-curves, the curule appeared in many early nineteenth-century design sources and price books, which were the guides published to establish how much a journeyman cabinetmaker was paid to produce a particular piece of furniture. This large suite of seating furniture includes a sofa, a pair of armchairs, ten side chairs, and a pair of footstools.

A pair of Parisian vases (1999.191.1) on view in the room features finely painted landscapes and seascapes, probably based on period prints. By 1800, ornamental vases became popular parlor accessories, and Americans often brought them back from travels abroad. Nathan Appleton (1779–1861), a wealthy textile merchant and member of Boston’s cultural elite, bought this pair for his home on fashionable Beacon Street.

The Richmond Room owes its survival to Thomas Waterman, an architect who helped document the Williams House before it was razed in 1936. Waterman managed to salvage the architectural elements from the drawing room. He then sold the room to the York, Pennsylvania, antiques dealer Joe Kindig Jr. It was Kindig who presented the woodwork to the Museum in 1968, after it had sat in storage in a barn for over thirty years. Berry B. Tracy (died 1984), the curator who accepted Kindig’s gift, described the room as “a revelation to the creative taste and genius of the craftsmen of the Federal Period in America” and expected that it would “be for time immemorial a feature attraction” in the Museum.