Review by Wendy A. Cooper
Honoré Lannuier, Cabinetmaker from Paris: The Life and Work of a French Ébéniste in Federal New York

Peter M. Kenny, Frances F. Bretter, and Ulrich Leben. Honoré Lannuier, Cabinetmaker from Paris: The Life and Work of a French Ébéniste in Federal New York. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998. xviii + 253 pp.; 101 color and 137 bw illustrations, appendixes, bibliography, index. Distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York. $75.00.

In the arena of American furniture scholarship, rarely is a single publication (and exhibition) devoted solely to the “life and work” of a pre-1820 cabinetmaker. Whereas European and American artists, printmakers, and sculptors often receive “one-man” status, few American or emigré American craftsmen achieve similar recognition. The dearth of focused work on individual American cabinetmakers is understandable, since usually only a small amount of their production is marked and often a significant body of supporting, written documentary material does not survive. For Honoré Lannuier, one might at first wonder whether enough material, both surviving production as well as contemporary documentation, exists to make a significant presentation both as an exhibition or a major publication. Peter Kenny and company (Frances Bretter and Ulrich Leben), however, have risen to the challenge, unearthing new labeled examples of his work, and leaving practically no primary or secondary source unexplored. The result is an amazingly complete representation of his work interwoven not only with an account of the youth, training, and subsequent success of this skillful and savy Frenchman but also with the story of the community of related craftsmen and patrons in which he was a principal player. As an institution seemingly devoted primarily to the advancement of the fine arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is to be applauded (along with Kenny’s immediate colleagues at the museum) for its support and encouragement of this stunningly significant contribution to the understanding of cabinetmaking in early nineteenth-century New York.

At the outset the modest Kenny acknowledges in the preface his debt to the “scholarship laid down by several preceding generations”; as he aptly states, “this entire project stands on their broad shoulders.” Beginning with emigré German cabinetmaker Ernest Hagen’s interest in early New York cabinetmakers in the late nineteenth century, Kenny cites the work and contributions of many scholars, curators, and collectors ranging from Metropolitan Museum curators Charles Over Cornelius and Joseph Downs to scholar Thomas Hamilton Ormsbee and noted collector Louis Guerineau Myers. By the second half of the twentieth century, the center of Lannuier interest and scholarship shifted from New York southward to Winterthur Museum with the research of Lorraine Waxman and her 1958 Winterthur master’s degree thesis on Lannuier and the French influence on American decorative arts. Waxman’s work continued when she joined the White House staff as its first curator, working with Francophile First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and adding two important pieces of Lannuier’s documented work to the White House collection. Kenny’s final debt is to the research of Metropolitan curator Berry B. Tracy, whose work on New York cabinetmakers of the early nineteenth century greatly assisted him in placing Lannuier in the context of his contemporaries. It is not surprising that all of the avid furniture scholars of the twentieth century cared about the very same concerns that Kenny and company have built their comprehensive study upon: documented knowledge of Lannuier’s past, the capture and connoisseurship of marked examples of his work, and Lannuier’s relationship to contemporary cabinetmakers and patrons in early federal New York.

The remarkably comprehensive portrayal of Lannuier’s life and work that this publication presents is developed systematically and logically through four chapters focused on his family background, youth, and training as an ébéniste in Paris; his career in New York within the context of his contemporaries; his production for specific patrons; and the connoisseurship of his work compared with that of contemporaries following his style. Although each chapter might stand alone, each one builds on the information in the former, resulting in the whole resonating like a symphony in four movements.

Critical to the understanding of any craftsman is knowledge of the influences that surrounded him in his youth and throughout his initial training. Kenny identified precisely the perfect European scholar, Ulrich Leben, to explore and interpret this aspect of Lannuier’s life. As deputy keeper of Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, England, Leben is the preeminent authority on the work of Bernard Molitor, a Luxemburg-born cabinetmaker who came to Paris in his early years and became one of the most renowned Parisian ébénistes. Familiar with French archives and sources, Leben expertly documents Lannuier’s family background, beginning with the information that he came from a family of craftsmen involved in the building trades. Born in Chantilly in 1779, Lannuier’s early years were doubtless affected by the death of his mother when he was just under two years old and the subsequent bankruptcy of his innkeeper father when he was about ten. Shortly thereafter his father moved the family to Paris, where Honoré’s elder brother, Nicolas, was already an established ébéniste. Presumably, shortly afterward Honoré, at about age twelve, was apprenticed to his brother. Leben systematically details all the existing information on Honoré’s siblings, including Nicolas, and extensively discusses the contemporary Parisian craftsmen Nicolas interacted with, providing enormous insights into the methods and manner in which Parisian ébénistes of the period operated. Collaboration among craftsmen, as well as the merchandising of other ébéniste’s furniture, was not uncommon. Illustrations of contemporary design sources and of the exact styles and forms of furniture made by this array of craftsmen demonstrate the precise models that informed Honoré in the years prior to his departure for America. Leben’s discussion of the techniques and materials employed by Parisian ébénistes further expands our understanding of the standards and practices that Honoré was imbued with as a young apprentice and of how he continued to employ these through his years of work in New York. For instance, his use of high-quality hardwoods and exquisitely patterned veneers, white Carrara marble tops, and superior gilt-bronze ornaments and mounts was a practice he brought with him to New York from his Parisian training. Leben specifically recognizes, however, that Honoré’s move to New York did not simply transplant a French cabinetmaker to another continent. As a creative artist, Lannuier not only retained “the basic precepts of his training,” but in New York he matured and adapted his work to changing tastes and fashions as he created strikingly original expressions prized by his contemporary patrons as well as late twentieth-century connoisseurs.

In Kenny’s primary chapter on “Lannuier’s Life and Work in New York, 1803–1819,” he proves himself to be a paramount detective and analytical observer. Admitting in advance the paucity of written documents surrounding Lannuier’s career (in contrast to the relative abundance of his stamped and labeled furniture), Kenny proceeds to paint an amazingly vivid and complete picture of this emigré cabinetmaker’s enterprising career in New York. Interweaving into an intricate network what might individually seem like irrelevant bits of data, Kenny unfolds a richly embroidered cloak that surrounds one of the most dedicated and individualistic craftsmen of his day. Beginning with a query into the reasons for Lannuier leaving Paris in 1802–1803, about which Kenny confesses that “too many unanswered questions remain,” he cites the provocative first recorded mention of Lannuier in New York on June 3, 1803, when turner James Ruthven recorded the sale of sixteen table legs to him. Characteristic of Kenny’s cautious yet analytical approach to his subject, he uses each shred of evidence to illuminate Lannuier’s situation, or that of the contemporary scene, stating, “Buying furniture parts from a turner may have been a fairly standard New York practice in trade, but it is just as likely that Lannuier’s purchase may have been necessitated by the lack of a proper shop and a full complement of machinery at this early date.” As this chapter continues, it is difficult to believe that there is any lack of documentation, given the recently discovered sources (found in France), such as the “acte de marriage” between Honoré and Therese Baptiste, the sister of his brother Auguste’s wife. This abundance of new information is assimilated and amplified throughout the text and punctuated with a lavish number of color and black and white illustrations of Lannuier’s documented work, occasionally contrasted with the work of his contemporaries.

Kenny is dauntless in tackling the toughest topics, such as Lannuier’s shop organization and scale of production, even in the absence of any of his account books and other business records. He successfully accomplishes this task by making careful comparisons between the production of Lannuier and other cabinetmakers, especially his principal competitor, Duncan Phyfe (1768–1854). This methodology continues to enhance the rich contextual nature of this study, so that the reader rarely confronts only Lannuier; more often he is viewed within the very community he so aptly served. Given Lannuier’s strong French ties, it is not surprising that four French cabinetmakers can be documented as working in his shop or at least as having had direct ties to his shop. His close relationships with others in the New York cabinet trade can be gleaned from his detailed inventory of property and will of 1819. These associations included five cabinetmakers, four merchants, and two mahogany dealers, once again indicating the intricate relationships in making and marketing furniture in early nineteenth-century New York. Another aspect of craft structure cited in this section is the close relationship between upholsterers and cabinetmakers in the early nineteenth century. Indeed, Honoré’s brother Nicolas referred to himself as a cabinetmaker and upholsterer on his French label, and though Lannuier appears not to have carried on in this same dual role, his associations with the upholstery trade were close.

Perhaps the most original and analytical aspect of this chapter is a discussion of the forms and styles of furniture Lannuier produced. Which examples closely paralleled French Directoire and Consulate periods? What was le goût moderne and le goût antique, and how did Lannuier’s work manifest these expressions? Finally, how did Lannuier merge these French styles with the preferences of his New York clients? This closer look at French design sources, the objects Lannuier made, and the parallels with specifications in the New York price books of the early nineteenth century further illuminates the individualistic and creative side of Lannuier’s workmanship. The dating of Lannuier’s furniture based on its style as well as on the type of stamp or label used on it is also analyzed. The body of material in this chapter is not only about Lannuier but about the entire cabinetmaking community in New York between 1803 and 1819. Lannuier’s premature death at age forty deprived his New York patrons of one of their most inspired artists; however, Lannuier has left his twentieth-century patrons an inheritance far greater than the mere $174.62 cash he had in the bank when he died in 1819.

Frances Bretter, Kenny’s principal colleague and research associate in this project, has written an intriguing and extremely well-documented chapter on twenty of Lannuier’s patrons. By locating and carefully combing through volumes of family papers, newspaper advertisements, and New York City archives, she has been able to describe, and often illustrate, the types of pieces they purchased, the prices they paid, who else they were patronizing, and sometimes even what the furniture interiors looked like. In several instances, such as the Van Rensselaer and Campbell furniture, her indefatigable research has corrected attributions of ownership. Lannuier was clearly the cabinetmaker of choice for French-style goods, but it is interesting that a number of consumers who patronized Lannuier also bought from Phyfe. Principal among his clients were merchants William Bayard and James Brinkerhoff. Bayard began patronizing Lannuier as early as February 1805 and ultimately wound up purchasing suites of furniture for his daughters Maria and Harriet when they married, respectively, Duncan Campbell and Stephen Van Rensselaer IV in 1817. The Bayard-Campbell-Pearsall Papers at the New York Public Library are just one of the many sources that have yielded a wealth of data for Bretter. She has ably used this new information to detail the taste and preferences over time of the family of one of Lannuier’s biggest fans. Heretofore, the name of William Bayard was probably most frequently invoked by furniture scholars when they thought of Duncan Phyfe and the parlor furniture (some now at Winterthur) ordered from him by Bayard. Although both Bayard and Brinkerhoff bought large orders from Phyfe, they also turned to Lannuier for their showiest furniture—elaborated, winged caryatid furniture in the late Empire style.

Bretter’s discussions of Lannuier’s French clients in America and his southern patronage are equally rich in new material and astute observations. The existence of Lannuier furniture in the most northern reaches of New York State, purchased in 1816 by emigré James Leray de Chaumont, or his son Vincent, is an eye opener for most Lannuier aficionados. Also, although the only known suite of Lannuier furniture that includes seating forms for a domestic residence was owned by James Bosley, a Baltimore merchant, Bretter speculates in a footnote that Bosley’s furniture, presumably purchased for a new house in 1822, might have been that originally bought from Lannuier by A. S. Bulloch of Savannah. It is just this type of continuing critical analysis that demonstrates the total understanding by this remarkable team of the man, his times, and his work.

Kenny’s concluding chapter, “The Essence of Lannuier: Connoisseurship of His Known Work,” most profoundly demonstrates the heights to which he has taken this study of craftsmanship. As he aptly remarks, Lannuier is a “connoisseur’s dream” due to his “near-obsessive labeling and stamping of his furniture.” In this chapter it is evident how closely he and his curatorial and conservation colleagues have studied these documented works. They have merged both exhaustive visual examination with a variety of analytical techniques to understand his skill and technique. Why did Lannuier so often stamp (as was the Parisian practice) or label (having three different labels over time) his furniture? Could the tight competition from Phyfe and others have been one of the reasons for this type of presence in print he maintained? Because there are more than 125 documented or firmly attributed works by Lannuier, there is ample opportunity to take full note of his talent and dogged dedication to quality production, which emphasized extraordinary woods, particularly select book-matched veneers, and the finest quality gilded cast-brass ornaments, applied brass moldings, and inlaid brass. Kenny’s inquiries shed new light on the inlaid brass and wood bands used by Lannuier, for his research establishes a link between Lannuier and Parisian Denis-Michel Frichot whose talents in the manufacture of these “inlayings” were renowned. Kenny continues in his role as detective as he carefully examines the furniture—combining his ever-increasing understanding of Lannuier and his context with a studied analysis of these pieces. Working closely with conservators and employing modern analytical techniques when appropriate, he reaches new understandings of construction as well as of the various finished surfaces employed by Lannuier. This chapter sets a new standard for the examination of any body of material, large or small, from both a visual and analytical perspective.

Since this publication also served as the catalogue for the exhibition, a complete catalogue of all documented (103) and firmly attributed (22) pieces follows the final chapter. These entries contain valuable notes providing information on condition/alterations, provenance, and references. For those objects not illustrated within the text, a black and white illustration appears beneath the entry. When the object is illustrated within the text, this is referenced at the top of the entry. Unfortunately, the objects that were shown in the exhibition are only identified in the list of lenders at the front of the book. Equally frustrating is the fact that the captions for Lannuier objects in the text only reference the catalogue entry but do not state ownership, or if they were in the exhibition, under the illustration. These are minor points of inconvenience, which are eclipsed by the high quality of Bruce White’s photographic images and the simple elegance of Malcolm Grear’s overall design of the publication. Like the work of the master craftsman Lannuier, this volume is a model of well-crafted and seamlessly executed workmanship. There is no doubt that for generations to come it will serve classical connoisseurs as the penultimate source on Lannuier and his contemporary New York scene.

Wendy A. Cooper
Winterthur Museum

American Furniture 1998