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Furnishing the Nation

The Kaufman Collection of American antiques, now on view at the National Gallery, chronicles the evolution of taste, technique, and creativity in a young country.

Attributed to John and Hugh Finlay, Grecian couch, 1810–30, walnut and cherry; paint; gold leaf, 31 7/8 x 90 1⁄4 x 24 1/8 inches.

Attributed to John and Hugh Finlay, Grecian couch, 1810–30, walnut and cherry; paint; gold leaf, 31 7/8 x 90 1⁄4 x 24 1/8 inches.

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Among the three categories of antique furniture stipulated by the great dealer Albert Sack—“good, better, best”—George and Linda Kaufman always went for “best.” Over a period of five decades, the Norfolk, Va., couple amassed one of the highest-quality collections of American furniture and decorative arts in private hands. However, it won’t be in private hands much longer.

In 2010, the Kaufmans promised it as a gift to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and when the acquisition is completed, it will mark the first entry of American decorative arts into the museum’s collection, complementing its existing holdings of European decorative pieces.

Currently, more than 100 objects selected from the group are on display in “Masterpieces of American Furniture in the Kaufman Collection, 1700–1830,” an ongoing exhibition on the ground floor of the museum’s West Building. Visitors there will be treated to a comprehensive overview of the formative periods of American style, from the pre-revolutionary era to the federal period. The major elite centers of furniture production along the East Coast—Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Williamsburg, and Charleston—are all represented. This is a three-dimensional visual encyclopedia of the evolution of American decorative creativity, a time machine in which pieces spanning a century and a half of time and a thousand miles of space come together to simultaneously occupy one space in our time.

The Kaufmans started collecting back in the late 1950s, shortly before their marriage, while George was getting his MBA at the University of Virginia. (George went on to work as an investment banker before founding the hotel chain Guest Quarters Inc. in 1972. He died in 2001.) The couple visited major museums around the country, such as the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Yale University Art Gallery, studying the collection and learning directly from scholars and curators who specialized in American decorative arts. Sometime in the 1970s the Kaufman collection reached critical mass of quantity and excellence, and in 1986 they lent a substantial selection of pieces to the National Gallery for a show, at which time J. Carter Brown—then the director of the NGA and himself the descendant of a Rhode Island family that patronized some of the most famous colonial-era cabinetmakers—wrote, “Aside from being one of the largest and most refined collections of early American furniture in private hands, the works in this exhibition lent by George and Linda Kaufman exemplify American craftsmanship at its highest quality and offer vivid lessons in the evolution of national and regional tastes during this highly productive period of our nation’s development.”

In the NGA’s current show, the furniture is displayed chronologically, divided by stylistic period. It begins with the William and Mary Style, named for the Dutch born English king William III and his English wife Queen Mary II. While both monarchs were dead by 1702, the style was popular in America between around 1710 and 1735—trends generally arriving late in the colonies. It was distinguished by the use of patterned veneers and a technique of painted decoration called japanning that simulated Asian lacquer work. The earliest piece in the collection is a japanned dressing table from Boston made of cherry, maple, and white pine, with ball feet, trumpet-shaped legs, and curvilinear crossed stretchers linking the feet. Contrasting with its somewhat sober shape is the riot of decoration that covers every available surface of the table—flowers and leaves on the sides and legs, and an elaborate hunting scene on the top, in which horsemen and archers pursue an animal through a pseudo-Oriental landscape. The whole design, which is executed in shades of orange on a black ground, is thought to be the largest japanned illustration on furniture in existence. It testifies to the high levels of sophistication in taste and technique that obtained even at a very early stage of culture and economy in Boston.

Next came the Queen Anne style, which caught on in the colonies around 1735 and remained popular through 1760—again postdating the actual reign of the queen, which lasted from 1702 to 1714. The major innovation of this style was the cabriole leg for chairs and tables, which bent outward at the “knee” and inward again at the “ankle” to end in a foot of some sort, either a ball-and-claw foot consisting of animal claws grasping a sphere or three-toed “trifid” feet or a pointed “slipper feet.” The elaborate surface ornamentation of the William and Mary period subsided in favor of plain wood, and the creative fancy of the cabinetmakers was expressed mainly in terms of curves, with some carved, inlaid, or gilt shells taking the place of japanned designs. A pair of Queen Anne walnut side chairs in the collection, made in Philadelphia between 1735 and 1760, represent the ultimate in curvaceousness. They have almost no angles. The carving of the ornaments dictated that this type of chair required larger quantities of costly woods than any other kind from the entire period of time covered by the Kaufman Collection. This pair, which descended in the Coates family of Philadelphia, passed through the hands of none other than Israel Sack, Albert’s father.

Spanning the late colonial and early federal periods (circa 1750–80), the so-called Chippendale Style took the Queen Anne forms to the next level of ornateness, with more use of carved shells, floral forms, and scrolls, to the point where it was also called “rococo.” The canon of this school of design was set out in an English handbook published in 1754 by Thomas Chippendale and titled The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director. A pair of chairs in the Kaufman exhibition epitomizes the over-the-top baroque quality of Chippendale style as developed in Philadelphia, where it was most popular. These chairs have rare “hairy paw” feet and elaborate, almost grotesque carving of the seat that appears to rise up and half-engulf the upholstery.

In the late 18th century, archaeological excavations in Italy and Greece and advances in Classical scholarship inspired a new school of furniture design, the Neoclassical, spearheaded by Scottish cabinetmaker Robert Adam. When referring to the early American republic, where it prevailed from around 1785 to 1810, it is called the federal or early Classical style. Its lines are light and simple, in total contrast with the heavy and fantastical Chippendale look, and its craftsmen returned to the use of veneers and inlays to place motifs from Classical antiquity on the surfaces of their pieces. An armchair from New York, circa 1785–1800, in the exhibition epitomizes federal style in its graceful and delicate urn-shaped back featuring carved drapery swags. A sideboard made by the New York firm of Mills & Deming circa 1793–95 for the Connecticut politician Oliver Wolcott—who was George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury—is considered the most elaborate New York federal sideboard. Drapery swags with fringes and tassels are inlaid in curly maple and satinwood against the background of mahogany, and the central bowed doors are offset by concave ends. The legs taper gracefully downward, also decorated with delicate inlays.

Finally, from around 1805 to 1830, the American version of the French Empire Style came to the fore. Classical models were still the source of inspiration, but now they were filtered through a Napoleonic sensibility. Curves were back—bolder, longer ones this time, such as those in a stunning Grecian couch from Baltimore, made circa 1810–40 by John and Hugh Finlay and on view at the National Gallery. On this asymmetrical piece of furniture, with scrolled ends and painted decorations imitating ormulu, one can imagine a lady clad in a white, high-waisted Greek-inspired dress reclining like Mme. Recamier, savoring the leisure for contemplation that affluence afforded in the prosperous, confident years of the early American republic. Even more direct imitation of ancient forms is obvious in the designs of curule stools and klismos chairs in the collection. A very boldly painted klismos by the Finlays has a swept back and tablet top, with brown and black painted ornamentation on a background of golden yellow.

Some characteristically American furniture types get special attention in the selection of Kaufman objects at the NGA. The high chest, a furniture type from England that found more favor in the colonies throughout the 18th century than at home, was used for storing clothing and linen. A Philadelphia example, circa 1750–70, of mahogany, poplar, yellow pine, and white cedar with Chippendale ball and claw feet, conveys a strong sense of verticality and is topped with a finely carved foliate ornament. One form that was invented in America with no precedent in European cabinetmaking is the kneehole desk, pioneered in Newport, R.I., by the Goddard–Townsend families of craftsmen, who were trained not in London but locally. A blockfront mahogany bureau table (a type of kneehole desk), made between 1760 and 1790 for Providence merchant John Brown (a founder of Brown University), revels in non-functional, almost sculptural decorative elements, such as huge shell carvings over the drawers, blocked feet, and molded top.

A gaming table by Boston furniture makers John and Thomas Seymour, circa 1798–1805, in mahogany with satinwood veneer, brass, Moroccan leather, baize, and ivory, is considered absolutely unique. Its sliding-top construction enables it to display a plain surface for everyday purposes, or to be transformed into a chess table when the top is moved back to reveal the checkered board, or to become a backgammon table when the whole top is removed. The legs are very long and graceful, terminating in little wheels so the table can be moved easily around a room.

Another table in the collection tells a story: A marble-top Chippendale mahogany side table from Boston, circa 1760–65, with cabriole legs and ball and claw feet, was in such pristine condition when it was offered to the Kaufmans that the collectors wondered whether it was really as old as it was claimed to be. Unlike in most such cases, an answer was soon forthcoming. Inside the table’s frame they found a label with the name “Sever” on it, which researchers suspected referred to the 18th-century Massachusetts merchant William Sever. Eventually a photograph of a room in the Sever house, taken around 1900, was found; in the picture, the marble-top side table was clearly visible. It turned out that that table had stayed in the house for almost two centuries, until 1951, when it was sold at auction. By acquiring it, the Kaufmans took over the stewardship of this historic object, and by giving it on the National Gallery, they ensured that it will be preserved for the appreciation and understanding of future generations and become the property not of one family but of the whole nation.

Author: John Dorfman | Publish Date: October 2014

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