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Coats of Many Colors

By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Olde Hope Antiques; Sumpter Priddy III

The difference between a mediocre piece of American painted furniture and a great one is measured in a span smaller than an inch. Vulnerable to the ravages of time and the whims of fashion, few of these furnishings have survived the centuries with their painted surfaces intact.

A step-back cupboard made circa 1820–30 in Pennsylvania and offered for $225,000 by Litchfield, Conn., dealer Jeffrey Tillou would be worth far less if it had been stripped of its decorative surface. “It would be $50,000 to $60,000 without its original paint,” Tillou says of the piece, which was faux-grained, or painted to resemble a prettier-looking wood than the poplar from which it was built. “You’re buying the paint. The premium on painted furniture is like the premium on a painting itself. It’s about condition and the way it’s been treated. The more intact it is, and the more original paint there is, the bigger the premium on it.”

H.L. “Skip” Chalfant, a dealer in West Chester, Pa., currently has an extraordinary Pennsylvania dower chest, a type of chest in which young people, usually women, stored linens and other goods in anticipation of their wedding day. Painted with images of tulips and birds, the chest is dated, which is rare in and of itself, and the date is 1769, which makes it one of the earliest dower chests in existence. But it, too, would have been sunk if it had suffered the ministrations of an overzealous do-it-yourself enthusiast armed with too much time and paint thinner. “If it had been stripped, the chest would have been worth $2,000,” he says of the $125,000 item. “Painted ones go for $15,000 to $500,000. It’s all in the paint.”

The finest antique examples of American painted furniture are available only to deep-pocketed collectors, but they served a broader market when they were new. Indeed, the decorative use of paint crossed boundaries of culture and class. Rich sophisticates in early 19th-century Baltimore commissioned painted chairs, settees and other high-style fittings from the brothers John and Hugh Finlay, at the same time as rural craftsmen were pushing the faux-graining technique into the realm of abstraction. Meanwhile, German-speaking settlers of Pennsylvania painted dower chests with images of unicorns, flowers, hearts, birds and stars, as they had done since the latter half of the 18th century. Furniture workshops in the port cities of Boston, Philadelphia and New York pounced on new pigments, woods and ideas as they arrived from Europe, but they were not alone in doing so. Some experts speculate that the red-and-black palette seen in faux-grained furniture from Maine developed after 1820, when the Empire style, which favored pricey rosewood over mahogany, an equally expensive traditional choice for top-of-the-line furniture, gained favor in America. Maine was relatively isolated at the time, but its inhabitants were still alert to fashions in interior decorating. Even the Pennsylvania Germans were more connected than previously believed. Chemical analyses of fraktur, a form of folk art that relies heavily on calligraphy, reveal that the craftspeople in these communities did not home-brew their inks and paints. Indeed, they could well have bought the raw materials from a nearby store. An article on painted furniture in the winter 2005–06 issue of the American Folk Art Museum’s magazine, Folk Art, cited a 1764 ad for a druggist in Lancaster, Pa., who carried a range of pigments as well as silver and gold leaf.

The decorative surfaces of American painted furniture satisfied a craving for color. Today, however, layers of varnish and decades of patination often obscure the original hues. A small two-drawer dresser that is believed to have been made in New England around 1840 and that now belongs to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia shows how vivid the paint could be: Its shades of yellow and orange would suit the set of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. “Quite often, they strike us as garish,” says Chris Shelton, president of the Boston restoration firm Robert Mussey and Associates, which handles antique American painted pieces. “Sometimes it’s hard to convince a dealer or collector that no, those colors are really there, and they’re really the original colors.”

These colors certainly look more electric than they would in an interior lit by candles and sunlight, but earlier Americans probably did not intend the eye-popping furnishings to serve as tools for amplifying the available light. “Bright colors have to do with innovation and status more than anything else,” says Stacy Hollander, senior curator and director of exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan, referring to chemical breakthroughs in the 18th and 19th centuries that led to the invention of pigments such as Prussian blue and chrome yellow. Sheffield, Mass., dealer Samuel Herrup says that color brought a different sort of light to early Americans: “The colors were incredibly bright on furniture to enliven fairly dreary lives.” Jeff Bridgman, a dealer in York County, Pa., agrees. “It could perk up the day-to-day drudgery of a poor Lancaster County farmer to have an orange and chrome yellow blanket chest. It would certainly perk me up.”

Earlier this summer Bridgman sold a painted desk-on-frame from the early 19th century that illustrates how time can transform the surface of a piece of furniture. The desk appears to be a light olive green, but a small patch on a front drawer where an escutcheon once rested broadcasts the desk’s true color: robin’s-egg blue. “It’s hard to even believe it was blue when you look at it,” Bridgman says. The discovery was tantalizing; blue furniture was uncommon before the Civil War because blue pigments were costly. “I could potentially have worked at it with chemicals to get the blue, but the surface was so good that I didn’t want to do it,” he says. “The value of the desk is really in the surface of the paint, which has not been significantly cleaned or touched. It’s the kind of surface that collectors want to see when they buy painted furniture. They want it as unspoiled as possible.”

“Collectors are very keen on condition,” says John Hays, deputy chairman for Christie’s in America and director of its American furniture department. “They want it to be right, and they want it to be good.” The trick, he says, is in finding items that have enjoyed an uninterrupted period of “benign neglect.” Strikingly decorated pieces that slumber through the centuries unmolested are the ones that attract spirited bidding at auction. A chest decorated with painted vines and birds and bearing the legend “Taunton RC 1729” set a record for American painted furniture in January 2006 at Christie’s New York. The small chest, which has been attributed to Robert Crosman, a craftsman from Taunton, Mass., fetched $2.9 million. Its provenance and condition propelled the price, but its artistic merits pushed it over the top. “There’s a folky quality to it, because it’s so early,” says Hays. “He used the whole piece of furniture like a canvas.”

Nancy Druckman, senior vice president and director of American folk art at Sotheby’s New York, says that while “people are much fussier about condition now” than they were 20 or even 10 years ago, certain forms of wear are acceptable. In the same May 1995 Sotheby’s auction in which a blanket chest painted by Johannes Spitler fetched $343,500 and set a house record for Pennsylvania German furniture, she sold another, smaller Spitler-painted chest that boasted unusual scars for $19,500. At some point in its existence, chickens had been butchered on its lid, and a careful observer could spot the axe marks in the surface. “Maybe it’s a gruesome example, but people are attracted to seeing continuity of use,” she says. “Often, the tops of chests were used like little table tops, and they got a lot of wear.”

Faux-grained furniture is also prized for its folk art appeal. Initially, faux-graining was a means to an end: It made cheap, locally harvested pine and poplar look like expensive, imported rosewood and mahogany, and it concealed the use of contrasting woods in a single piece. But by the turn of the 19th century, faux-graining had started to evolve into something more dynamic. Exciting Expressions: Painted Furniture, an ongoing exhibition at the folk art museum at Colonial Williamsburg, currently includes a chest painted in Pennsylvania between 1820 and 1830. Unlike his forebears, who labored to depict the nuances of luxurious woods, the unknown artist painted the chest a russet color overlaid with radiating rows of short, brown dashes that call to mind concentric rings. “I don’t think he’s trying to imitate a specific wood,” says Tara Chicirda, Colonial Williamsburg’s curator of furniture and creator of the Exciting Expressions show, which opened two years ago. “No one who looks at it will think it suggests a specific wood. It’s just a painterly design based on wood. It’s very abstract.”

Modern collectors are so intrigued by the artistically grained furnishings that the more sober examples—the ones that convincingly mimic richer woods—find few takers. “The more whimsical, the more fanciful, the more decorative and unrealistic, the more saleable it is in this market,” says Patrick Bell of Olde Hope Antiques in Solebury, Pa. “The beauty is really in the individual expression.” Hays finds the situation amusing: “It’s ironic that today, the things that were done quickly and boldly are worth more than those that were expensive at the time.”

Early America’s concurrent embrace of radiantly painted and whimsically grained furnishings might be more than a coincidence. Sumpter Priddy, a dealer in Alexandria, Va., argues that both trends belong to the Fancy style, which flourished from 1790 to 1840. The word “fancy” then had a different meaning, which has since fallen from use; it described anything that had the power to spark wonder, delight and creative thinking. The excavation of Pompeii, which revealed that ancient Romans did not live in a staid, white-marble world but instead festooned their homes with colorful frescoes, fueled the Fancy fire, as did the invention of playful novelties such as the kaleidoscope and the rocking chair. And the joyfulness of Fancy suited the mindset of the youthful, newly independent country. “This was about celebrating life, celebrating achievement and celebrating America,” Priddy says. “It all congealed exuberantly.” The Pennsylvania German painters continued along their own aesthetic path, but Priddy says that Fancy’s influence eventually reached them, appearing after they increased their contact with English-speaking neighbors: “Things became less and less traditional and more and more Fancy as they became acclimated to the culture.”

The early American painters were united by something other than their medium. Most remain anonymous despite the sustained efforts of researchers to find out their names and link them with specific pieces of furniture. Another reason that the Taunton chest sold at Christie’s generated such interest among bidders was its role as a sort of Rosetta Stone. In the 1920s and ’30s researcher Esther Stevens Fraser studied historic documents in Taunton and deduced that the initials on the chest probably belonged to craftsman Robert Crosman, a finding that allowed the attribution of more than 20 other chests to him. Tillou recently connected an early 19th-century New York high-style settee to a decorative painter, Christian Nestell, by spotting the similarities between the decorations on it and sketches in one of Nestell’s drawing books at the Winterthur Museum and Country Estate in Delaware.

“Most records exist apart from the piece,” says Herrup, explaining that painters are more often identified through business-related documents, such as tax filings and the records kept by their clients. Wendy Cooper, the Lois F. and Henry S. McNeil senior curator of furniture at Winterthur, is working on a spring 2011 exhibition, Paint, Pattern and People: Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725–1850, which she hopes will shed more light on the furnishings of Pennsylvania German communities and their English-speaking neighbors. “We’re really connecting people to pieces and putting the story together,” she says, acknowledging the challenge of the task. “The tough thing is pinning down exactly where something was made. Even if there’s a name on it, there could be 10 people who have that name.”

The appeal of American painted furniture seemed to decline after the Civil War, when ready-made paints reach the American market. Before paint came in convenient little tubes, artists had to prepare it themselves. Paint-making was a dirty and dangerous task that involved handling and processing toxic chemicals, and the artists had to make fresh batches every day because yesterday’s paint didn’t keep. The laborious nature of the task encouraged the rise of a class of professionals who accepted a broad range of artistic jobs, painting trade signs, coaches, portraits, furniture and whatever else was needed. Presumably, the spread of ready-made paints put many of these artisans out of work, and American painted furniture would have suffered as a consequence. The American Folk Art Museum’s collection has “very little painted furniture after 1840 and 1850,” says Hollander. “I see a decline in originality. The most exuberant, original, individual pieces were in the earlier part of the century.”

Shelton’s restoration work sometimes requires him to follow antique paint recipes and grind pigments by hand. “It’s challenging to deal with preindustrial paints. They’re so unique in how they are mixed,” he says. “It’s not just that it’s blue, it’s a hand-ground blue, and you can’t go out and get it without having to work at it. That’s what I find rewarding about it.”

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Va. 757.229.1000
American Folk Art Museum, New York 212.265.1040
Christie’s New York 212.636.2000
H.L. Chalfant, West Chester, Pa. 610.696.1862
James and Nancy Glazer American Antiques, Bailey Island, Maine
Jeff Bridgman Antiques, York County, Pa. 717.502.1281
Jeffrey Tillou Antiques, Litchfield, Conn. 860.567.9693
Northeast Auctions, Portsmouth, N.H. 603.433.8400
Olde Hope Antiques, Solebury, Pa. 215.297.0200
Pook and Pook, Downington, Pa. 610.269.4040
Robert Mussey Associates, Boston 617.364.4054
Samuel Herrup Antiques, Sheffield, Mass. 413.229.0424
Sotheby’s New York 212.606.7000
Sumpter Priddy III, Alexandria, Va. 703.299.0800
Winterthur Museum and Country Estate, Winterthur, Del.

Author: admin | Publish Date: October 2009

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