Side Chair (Primary Title)
Pair of Side Chairs (Former Title)
Originating in England, decoratively painted “fancy” furniture was popular in federal America among elite patrons in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other areas. It was particularly affiliated with Baltimore, where skilled specialists were celebrated for their ornamental painting. By 1820, however, the combination of inexpensive materials and mechanical advances had reduced the cost of fancy goods, encouraging patronage by middle-class households throughout the United States. At the same time, the regulated designs of neoclassicism gave way to bolder and more whimsical treatments. This was prompted, in part, by the invention in 1816 of the kaleidoscope, which produced optical illusions that dramatically affected American textile, ceramic, and furniture decoration.
As specialists modified techniques to suit changing tastes, manufacturers copied and produced their own ready-made “Baltimore chairs.” These were ferried along the coast and brought west through the Erie Canal. This pair of painted chairs, with their illusionistic “carvings,” captures these converging influences. While the legs recall the earlier classical designs, the backs incorporate high-style rococo elements adapted by midrange American firms. Similarly, although the original resist-dye cotton upholstery of this set is given upscale treatment with boxed seats and backs, the same motifs decorated quilts and pressed glass, ultimately transforming the fancy style into an all-American aesthetic.
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