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Side Chair

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Side Chair

Maker: Attributed to John Finlay, 1777-1851, and Hugh Finlay, 1781-1831 (Baltimore, Maryland; active 1800-1837)

Date: 1820-1830
Medium: Soft maple, yellow-poplar, paint, gesso, modern caned-seat, minor inpainting
Overall: 34 1/2 × 20 3/8 × 22 1/2in. (87.6 × 51.8 × 57.2cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase, by exchange with The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Object number: 77.66
Label Text
Some of the most extraordinary interpretations of the klismos chair, which is based on an ancient Roman chair form, were produced in Baltimore. This chair, part of a set made for the founder of the Baltimore Sun, Arunah S. Abell, is dramatic in form-the deeply curved rear legs and seat back-and decoration. Each of the surviving chairs is enhanced with derivations of classical motifs including swags, faces, anthemia, and exotic creatures. The strong colors-originally a rich yellow body with deep green, black, red, and white details-indicate that the chairs may have been made to correspond to a decorating scheme.
Text Entries

Few groups of nineteenth-century furniture have been so closely scrutinized as the painted chairs, settees, and tables made by John (1777-1851) and Hugh (1781-1831) Finlay of Baltimore. Scholars recognized this furniture as exceptional even before its makers were identified. The antiquarian and writer Edgar Miller, for example, included an elaborately painted table owned by the Brown family of Baltimore in American Antique Furniture (1937).(1) With the landmark scholarship by Gregory R. Weidman, the painted furniture of John and Hugh Finlay now takes its place among the best documented American furniture in the late neoclassical taste.(2)

John Finlay first worked in Baltimore as a coach painter in 1799 and was joined by his brother Hugh by 1803. For the next three decades the brothers appear in city directories and newspapers as workers in the furniture trade at various shop locations within the area of Frederick, Baltimore, and Gay Streets in Baltimore. Their advertisements refer to a wide range of furniture “in all colors, gilt ornamented, and varnished in a style not equalled on the continent.“(3) Weidman has established that the Finlays’ shop was “almost the sole supplier of stylish and diverse suites of furniture to prosperous Baltimoreans and others throughout the region.”(4)

This chair is one of a set owned by the Abell family at Woodbourne, its Baltimore estate. The chairs descended in the family of Arunah Shepherdson Abell (1808-88), founder of the Baltimore Sun. The set, attributed to the Finlays, reflects the high style of craftsmanship and decoration that is emblematic of Baltimore work between 1815 and 1825.(5) Chairs of this type are based on the Roman klismos form and consist of a crest rail with broad curved tablet, turned tapered front legs, and sharply raked rear legs and back. Finlay klismos chairs have painted decoration and, in overall form, relate to French and English precedents.(6) A model for this archaeologically correct classical chair was published in 1790 in a French album entitled Mubilier de Madame Elisabeth. A more widely circulated version was published by English designer Thomas Hope in Household Furniture and lnteriar Decoration (1807).(7)

The Abell chairs are especially notable because each of the nine known chairs (from an original set that probably numbered twelve) features a different design on the curved tablet. A motif of either swans, deer, griffins, unicorns, or other mythological creatures, painted on the black-green background of each chair, is flanked by Grecian scrolls. The Finlays derived these designs from plate 56 of the 1803 edition of Thomas Sheraton’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book. Each chair is painted gold with green, red, white, and black decoration.(8) Designs of a dart with crossed torches on the center rail, diamonds and anthemia on the side rails, a fasces flanked by wreaths on the front rail, and swags and stylized palmettes on the legs were inspired by motifs found in the published drawings of Frenchmen Charles Percier (1764-1838) and Pierre-Frangois- Leonard Fontaine (17 62-1 853), designers to the court of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The attribution of the Abell chairs is based on their similarity to documented furniture made by the Finlays for wealthy Hagerstown, Maryland, merchant Richard Ragan (1776-1850) and for Baltimore merchantjames Wilson (1775-1851). The Finlay attribution is strengthened by comparisons of the Abell chairs with two other suites of furniture-the suite the brothers made for William Waln (1775-1826) of Philadelphia in 1808 and the suite they made for the drawing room of the White House in 1809 after the designs of architect Benjamin H. Latrobe (1764- 1829). The Abell chairs are caned, a cool alternative to an upholstered slip seat. During the winter, they undoubtedly would have held cushions to protect sitters from drafts.

Essay by Page Talbott

1. Edgar Miller, American Antique Furniture (Baltimore: Lord Baltimore Press, 1937; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1966), no. 1553. The table was owned at this time by Alexander Brown, a descendant of the original owner, merchant and banker Alexander Brown, for whom it was made about 1815. Miller points to the griffin decoration on the skirt as being similar to the creatures illustrated in Thomas Sheraton’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterers Drawing Book (1803); see p. 638, n. 5.

2. Weidman’s article, “The Painted Furniture of John and Hugh Finlay,” appeared in Antiques 118, no. 5 (May 1993): 744-55. This article expanded upon Weidman's previously published works in the exhibition catalogue Classical Maryland, 1815-I845: Fine and Decorative Arts from the Golden Age (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1993) and in Furniture in Maryland, 1740-1940 (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1984).

3. Federal Gazette and Baltimore Daily Advertiser, Nov. 8, 1805, quoted in William Voss Elder III and Jayne E. Stokes, American Furniture, 1680-1880, from the Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art (Baltimore, Md.: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1987), p. 47. The Abell chairs are also discussed in William Voss Elder III, Baltimore Painted Furniture, 1800-1840 (Baltimore, Md.: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1972), pp. 45-47, 61.

4. Weidman, “Painted Furniture of John and Hugh Finlay,” p. 745.

5. The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased nine of these chairs in 1965 from an antique dealer in Baltimore. MWPI received this chair by exchange in 1977. Other chairs from the Metropolitan Museum’s set are now owned by the High Museum, Atlanta (one); the Baltimore Museum of Art (two); and the George M. Kaufman collection (one). The Metropolitan Museum retained four. Two other chairs from the original set are in a private collection.

6. Weidman, “Painted Furniture of John and Hugh Finlay,” p. 748.

7. See Leon de Groér, Decorative Arts in Europe, 1790-1850 (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), pp. 12, 19. Mme. Elisabeth, whose home was at Montreuil, near Versailles, was the younger sister of Louis XVI. The furniture in the house is said to have been designed by Dugourc, Grognard, and Meunier and dates to 1790 or before. For chairs with broad tablets, continuous rear legs and back stiles, and boxed seat frames, see plate 4 in Thomas Hope, Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (London, 1807).

8. According to conservation analysis, the front legs, a front seat corner, and one end of the front rail have been inpainted. The crest rail has minimal inpainting. See Williamstown Regional Art Conservation Laboratory, Inc., “Furniture Examination Record” (December 1989), MWPI research files. For additional information on the conservation of another chair from this set, see Peter L. Fodera et al., “The Conservation of a Painted Baltimore Sidechair (ca. 1815) Attributed to John and Hugh Finlay," Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 36 (1997): 183-92. The designs of Percier and Fonnaine were published in Recueil de decorations intérieures, issued serially beginning in 1801 and as a book in 1812.