Sunday, August 5, 2018

Winged Lions' Feet, Dolphins, & Horns-of-Plenty: Sofas for a New America, 1800-1830

Sunday, August 5, 2018
Susan reporting,

Last month I visited the Ten Broeck Mansion, an elegant Federal-style house built in Albany, NY. Built in 1797-98 by General Abraham Ten Broeck and his wife, Elizabeth Van Rensselaer, the house sits high on a hill, overlooking the Hudson River. The mansion is currently the home of the Albany County Historical Association, and most of the rooms are shown decorated to reflect the tastes of the early 19thc owners. I will be writing more about the Ten Broeck Mansion in a future blog post, but today I wanted to feature some of the most interesting - at least to me! - pieces of furniture on display: the sofas. (As always, please click on the images to enlarge them.)

Today we think of a sofa (or couch, or sectional) as the most comfortable piece of furniture in most American homes, a large, soft, and often over-stuffed place for serious lounging. The term "couch-potato" is not to be taken lightly when thinking of modern American sofas.

In the 18thc, however, a sofa was still a rarity in most American homes. Instead most homes featured a variety of chairs that were moved around to suit a room's various purposes (dining, receiving visitors, playing cards), and then placed along the walls of the room when not in use. Lounging wasn't the primary goal. In fact, it probably wasn't even possible in most 18thc chairs.

By the early 19thc, however, American homes were grander and larger, and tastes were changing. The classically inspired French Directoire crossed the Atlantic and became American Directory or American Empire, as exemplified by the work of master American cabinet maker and furniture designer Duncan Phyfe (1768-1854.) The style was considered  to possess a particularly patriotic American flavor, incorporating classical design elements much as the American government was modeled on those of Rome and Greece. Acanthus leaves, rosettes, winged lions' paws, and dolphins are ancient motifs, while baskets of fruit, sheaves of wheat, and horns of plenty promised prosperity and abundance for the still-new country.

A sofa in the Directory style became the perfect centerpiece for American parlors, often as part of a matching suite of furnishings. Not only did the sofa display the owners' exquisite taste, but their pocketbook as well. Elaborately carved of imported woods like mahogany and luxuriously upholstered, often in silk, the large and lavish sofa was an expensive status piece.

Alas, tastes in decor are always changing, and what made an imposing statement two hundred years ago is simply too large and unwieldy for modern houses and apartments.  With their minimal cushions, these sofas also don't look up to the task of serious Netflix binge-watching, either.  But for pure craftsmanship and elegant design, I'll take one of these sofas over a sectional any day.

There are numerous sofas from this period on display in the Ten Broeck Mansion. I think I counted at least a half-dozen, each more imaginative than the last, and in beautiful condition. I'm featuring details of the carving from four of them here.

Many thanks to Karen Giordano, Albany County Historical Association, for her assistance with this post.

Top left: Sofa, c. 1800, carved mahogany. On loan from Gladys V. Clark.
Middle left & right: Sofas, c1810-1830, carved mahogany with upholstery. Both on loan from the Museum of the City of New York.
Bottom right: Sofa, c1810-1830, carved mahogany with upholstery. From bedroom furnished by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Photographs ©2018 by Susan Holloway Scott.


Helen said...

Considering all the 'underpinnings' worn, one probably could not lounge anyway.

Eric Stott said...

I recall when the Smithsonian exhibited a very fine sofa with very lively Dolphins as the feet and two Eagles in the crest rail. When they got it properly lit one of the curators wrote that she couldsn't decide if the Dolphins were trying to swim away with it, or the Eagles were going to carry it off.

Eric Stott said...

For further elucidation, read William Cowper's late 18th C. reflections upon the history of The Sofa:;view=fulltext

Cynthia Lambert said...

Most of the examples shown have the hairy paw feet. It's good to see that they retain their original casters, which made them easier to move around. There was a lot of shuffling about of furniture in the 18th and 19th centuries. We don't tend to do that any more, which is a pity. Probably one reason we don't is the advent of what I call "elephant" furniture. Overly massive, overstuffed and ugly, with none of the embellishments and fine lines of it's predecessors, it certainly fills the bill for binge watching Netflix. But, back to the Empire sofas - my favourite foot is the tapered and saboted curule leg, not shown in any of the photos here. It lends refinement to the design a mon avi. I don't know whether the Ten Broeck has an example of that style, but it's the style one generally sees in reproductions.

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