American “Fancy” Chairs

By Karen Parr-Moody

 

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the American woodworkers of 1790 to 1840 were flattering European Neoclassicism in a fevered pitch. Specifically, it was the English and French decorative style called Neoclassicism that inspired East Coast woodworkers to create a style that would ultimately be called American “fancy.”

 

After all, who wouldn’t want their rooms adorned with the furnishings of Neoclassicism, awash with gilt ormolu, inlay and extravagant carvings? (Example, photo right: cylinder fall desk with cabinet top by David Roentgen 1776 – 1782; photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

 

It turns out that Americans – poor, middle-class and wealthy alike – desired the many design elements of Neoclassicism, including the laurel leaf decoration, fluted columns and bow-and-arrow motifs inspired largely by the excavation of Pompeii under King Charles III of Bourbon in 1748. So woodworkers created wooden furniture painted to mimic the more costly veneers and materials of Neoclassicism. The groundbreaking trend developed in Baltimore, Maryland.

 

But why Baltimore?

 

The early years of the American Republic included establishing the U.S. Constitution and the first presidency under George Washington, both in 1789. As this new republic was established, Baltimore was booming. Due to its busy port, it was America’s third largest city after New York and Philadelphia. And as its wealthy citizens took the Grand Tour of Europe, they brought back fine European furniture, which influenced local woodworkers.

 

Were a woodworker to adorn furniture made of imported mahogany with Neoclassicism’s hand-carved details and inlay, such works would be priced out of reach for all but the wealthiest clients. A clever solution was found through creating furniture out of local woods, such as maple, walnut, pine and poplar, and painting the surfaces with gilded motifs, often in the style of trompe l’oeil (intended to "fool the eye" into thinking a view or object is three-dimensional).

 

Thus was born the “fancy” style, which was extremely popular in Maryland and was originally called “Baltimore fancy” (in a historical context, fancy meant “imaginative” or “fantastical”). Such furniture in a ground color of yellow, red or glossy black. Upon these canvases, artists would then paint classical elements inspired by ancient Greek and Roman designs, as well as elaborate scenes of important Baltimore architecture, country homes and landscapes.

 

It was the Baltimore workshop of brothers John and Hugh Finlay that produced the most remarkable of such works. Trained as coach painters, they found success in turning out Baltimore “fancy” furniture; many of their pieces are now preserved in museums or command high sums on the private market.

 

The handsome chair (circa 1815–20) in the photo, left, is attributed the Finlays’ workshop, and is inspired by the ancient Greek klismos form, with its turned front legs from Roman prototypes. It is one of a set of four chairs currently owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

 

The pier table in the photo, right, is also attributed to the Finlays’ workshop. It features a painted skirt medallion (see inset) that depicts a country estate (photos courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art; photographer, Gavin Ashworth).

 

Such fine pieces were initially commissioned by the wealthy citizens of Baltimore. But as time went on and the trend spread up the East Coast, such furniture was made for the middle class and even the poor. Latter “fancy” furniture included free-hand and stenciled designs.

 

Currently for sale at GasLamp Antiques and Decorating Mall there are six gorgeous Baltimore “fancy” chairs, circa 1820 (photo, left; $875; Booth B-300). True to the style, they have caned seats (which are in excellent condition). They are painted glossy black and feature turned legs, vasiform backsplats and floral, fleur-de-lis and leaf motifs.

 

Original scenes on each chair crest depict a variety of landscape scenes, including cows watering at a river, a man driving a wagon (inset, below) and a sailboat skimming across a pond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also at GasLamp Antiques and Decorating Mall are a pair of black Hitchcock chairs, circa 1830, which represent a style that developed in the wake of the Baltimore “fancy” trend (photo, below right; $225; B-138).

 

In 1818, Lambert Hitchcock founded a chair company in Connecticut and later began producing hand-stenciled furniture that resembled Baltimore “fancy” chairs and are now known to collectors as “Hitchcock chairs.” Original Hitchcock chairs usually have rush or cane seats and are typically painted black or dark green. Leaves, flowers and fruit motifs are common, as seen in the pair at GasLamp, and were achieved by using stencils and rubbing a bronzing powder into the finish coat.

 

Today, there is a certain amount of overlap that occurs between and within the various groups of American “fancy” chairs, as they became so popular in American households that they were ultimately made in dozens of workshops along the Eastern seaboard. So while it is fairly easy to spot an early Baltimore “fancy” chair due to the hand-painting and high quality, it can be tricky to differentiate between those made later in other workshops.

 

But whatever the provenance, American “fancy” chairs are important in decorating circles for achieving an early American look and certainly impart a distinctive look to any room in which they are placed.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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