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Music Cabinet

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Music Cabinet

Artist: Herter Brothers (active New York, New York, 1864-1906)

Date: 1868-1872
Medium: Rosewood, satinwood, curly soft maple, eastern white pine, cherry, black walnut, yellow-poplar, marquetry of various woods and pewter, gilding.
Overall: 55 × 26 5/8 × 15 1/2in. (139.7 × 67.6 × 39.4cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase with funds from the Wallace Thurston Bequest
Object number: 90.56
Label Text
While some objects are labeled with a maker's name, a majority of nineteenth-century furniture is unmarked. Protracted study is often the only means that results in accurate attributions. This music cabinet, for example, can be attributed to Herter Brothers. The firm's work is distinguished by its distinctive and consistent vocabulary combined with superior craftsmanship. Here, the lyre on the door, Ionic capitals atop each leg, the exceptional band of pewter fleurs-de-lis, and meandering vines of exotic woods can all be traced to known Herter objects or interior commissions.

A music cabinet was used in a drawing room or music room. The interior, fitted with horizontal and vertical shelves, is suited for the storage of loose sheets and bound volumes of music.

Text Entries

Gustave Herter (1830-98) and his brother Christian (1839-83) established Herter Brothers in New York City in 1864.(1) Sons of an ébéniste in Stuttgart, the Herters were among thousands of German emigrants who came to America by way of New York City during the 1840s and 1850s. Young Gustave arrived in 1848 and quickly distinguished himself as a craftsman. Although he described himself as a "Bildhauer," or sculptor, it was as "a designer of patterns for rich furniture" that Gustave made his reputation.(2) In 1853 he was credited with the design of three important pieces displayed at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York. After a brief partnership with Auguste Pottier from 1851 to 1853 and a longer association with Erastus Bulkley from 1853 to 1858, Gustave started his own firm—called Gustave Herter— at 547 Broadway and expanded his practice to include the full spectrum of interior decoration. By April 1859 Christian Herter had arrived in New York and soon was working for his brother. He became a partner in the firm, newly styled as Herter Brothers, five years later.(3)

Building upon Gustave Herter's earlier success, the firm of Herter Brothers rose to preeminence among New York City cabinetmakers and decorators after the Civil War. Many of the city's wealthy citizens who became Herter clients in the 1860s—risk-taking financiers, real estate magnates, and railroad men—solicited more work from the firm around 1880. In 1870 Gustave retired and returned with his family to Germany. Christian assumed artistic control of the firm, then located at 877-879 Broadway near Union Square. In 1883 his career was cut short by his death at the age of forty-four; the firm, however, continued in operation until 1906.

Throughout the early 1870s Herter Brothers worked in the Parisian style of Second Empire France. Carving, much esteemed during the 1850s, was eschewed during the 1860s in favor of rich surface decoration achieved with veneers, contrasting woods, painting, and gilding. The firm's work is distinguished by its formally inventive interpretation of the prevailing style and by a distinctive and consistent vocabulary that, in the absence of marks (as in the case of the MWPI music cabinet), identifies the maker. The lyre on the door, the Ionic capitals atop each of the legs (reiterated in the plaque above the door), and the rectangular spiral (incised and gilded to emphasize each corner of the base) are elements derived from Second Empire decoration that were absorbed into the Herter lexicon. The firm's excellent craftsmanship is noteworthy. The frame-and-panel construction, seamless rosewood veneers, and memorable marquetry of this cabinet exemplify the high quality that is typical of Herter furniture.

The MWPI cabinet can be dated between 1868 and 1872. Its weighty presence and the configuration of the legs and feet suggest that it was made when Gustave was still involved with the firm, before 1870. Similar marquetry lyres, applied plaques, and stop flutes appear in contemporaneous Herter commissions including several rooms for the LeGrand Lockwood mansion in Norwalk, Connecticut, of about 1867-69.(4) However, the linear marquetry patterns on this music cabinet appear on cabinets associated with Thurlow Lodge in Menlo Park, California, decorated between 1872 and 1873 after Gustave left the firm. The band under the cornice—meandering vines interrupted by shieldshaped rosewood insets that display a frilly variation of the French fleur-de-lys in pewter—is unusual among Herter Brothers' distinctive marquetry patterns.(5)

The MWPI music cabinet illustrates how Herter Brothers' mastery of coloristic effects heightens the architectonic character of its furniture. Gilding emphasizes the structure of the rosewood carcass. Gilded stop flutes on the engaged columns flanking the door draw the eye upward, while the gold decoration on the apron stretches tautly across the horizontal edge of the base and balances the marquetry band above. Gilding also outlines the panel on each side of the cabinet and the capitals and turned legs that support the base on which the cabinet sits. Light-colored marquetry incorporating yellow, olive green, and red woods and the brilliant yellow satinwood of the interior— revealed when the door is open—contrast dramatically with the plum-colored rosewood.(6)

This type of cabinet-on-stand, with a spindle gallery and marquetry veneers, became popular in Europe in the seventeenth century.(7)  The vertical and rectangular orientation of this one-door cabinet distinguishes it from the horizontal or square formats (usually with double doors) of its historical antecedents and from other cabinets-on-stand made by the Herter firm. Despite the universal importance of music in American homes during the nineteenth century, music cabinets are rare in Herter Brothers' oeuvre.(8)

Essay by Charles L. Venable


1. For further information on Herter Brothers, see Katherine S. Howe, Alice Cooney Frelinghuyse, Catherine Hoover Voorsanger et al., Herter Brothers: Furniture and Interiors for a Gilded Age (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1 994).

2. Bildhauer appears in the papers that Herter signed on June 29, 1850, at the Wurttemberg consulate in New York; these documents renounce his Wurttemberg

citizenship and proclaim his intention to become a United States citizen. The description of Hener's abilities is from an R.G. Dun & Co. report (New York Vol. 191, p. 45 1 [Sept. 12, 1854]), R . C. Dun & Co. Collection, Baker Library, Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration, Boston, Mass.


3. "Began here about May ‘51," in the first report on Bulkley and Herter by R.G. Dun & Co. in 1854 can be interpreted as suggesting that Gustave Herter's association with Erastus Bulkley started as early as 1851, although the exact meaning of the sentence is ambiguous. New York Vol. 191, p. 45 1 (Sept. 12, 1854), R.  G.  Dun & Co.  Collection.  Bulkley & Herter is first listed in the New York City directories in 1853. Christian is mentioned in association with Gustave’s monumental, sculpted organ case made between 1860 and 1863 for the Boston Music Hall. See Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, "Gustave Herter, Cabinetmaker and Decorator," Antiques 1 47, no.5 (M ay 1995): 740-51, especially n. 20.

4. The dates used here for the Lockwood mansion- called Elm Park- differ slightly from those in Howe et al., Herter Brothers. Construction of the house began in 1867 while the Lockwood family was on an extended stay in Europe. Although the main public rooms were not entirely complete, the house was occupied in 1869. Lockwood lost his fortune in the gold market crash of September 1869 and mortgaged the house to pay his debts. He was unlikely  to have ordered additional goods and services after this date.


5. The use of metal in Herter marquetry is relatively uncommon. This particular marquetry band does not appear on the other Herter music cabinet of this form (see n. 8). It does appear- with brass instead of pewter- on four cabinets that are identical in form to a Herter cabinet original to Thurlow Lodge, a home decorated by Herter Brothers in 1872 and 1873 tor one-time California governor Milton Slocum Latham. One of these four cabinets is in the Los Angeles County Museum (see Howe et al., Herter Brothers, cat. no. 17). The brass version of this pattern also appears on several oval tables of a type associated with Thurlow Lodge. Three of the four cabinets share with the MWPI music cabinet the second marquetry pattern that surrounds the central door on each piece. Among the distinguishing characteristics of this marquetry band are the small loops that connect each palmette in the marquetry to the rose­ wood background. Another version of this band ­ black wood against a bird's-eye maple ground ­ was used in the Lockwood card room, decorated by Herter Brothers between 1867 and 1869.


6. The interior is divided into four vertical sections above a single horizontal one. The contrast of exterior and interior woods is a consistent feature in Herter Brothers furniture and was also a common feature of parlor cabinets by other New York makers in the third quarter of the nineteenth century.

7. Monique Riccardi-Cubitt, The Art of the Cabinet (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992). See passages indexed under "cabinet-on-stand."

8. This statement appears to be true also of other New York firms contemporary with Herter Brothers. One other Herter exa1nple of this form, on the New York art market in 1998, is known. Although it has identical marquetry on the door and a variation of the surrounding border (the loops attached to the palmettes are contained within the framework of the border), this music cabinet conveys quite a different visual effect. Maple spindles (in place of rosewood) contrast with the rosewood carcass, the marquetry border around the door is repeated under the cornice (in lieu of the marquetry ban d with pewter), the engaged columns are not stop fluted, and the flutes are gilded from top to bottom. For a black and white illustration, see Sotheby's, 19th Century Furniture, Decorations, and Works of Art, sale cat. 6634 (New York, Sept. 16, 1992), lot 189. Another music cabinet-on-stand attributed to   Herter   Brothers, inscribed "De Forest" on top of the base and decorated with a figure painted in grisaille on each of two doors, is about the same elate as the MWPI cabinet but is horizontal in orientation and markedly more delicate in proportions. See Neal Alford Co., Auction, sale cat. (New Orleans, La., Oct. 7, 1989), lot 633, in which the piece was not recognized as being by Herter Brothers. Other variations of the cabinet-on-stand form by Herter Brothers are illustrated in Butterfield & Butterfield, English, American and Continental Furniture and Decorative Arts in Los Angles, sale cat. (Los Angeles, Calif., N ov. 6, 1 990), lot 437; and in Howe et al., Herter Brother, cat. no. 41.