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Review by Heidi Nasstrom
Masterpieces of American Furniture from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute

Anna Tobin D’Ambrosio, ed. Masterpieces of American Furniture from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute. Utica, N.Y.: Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, 1999. 171 pp.; 91 color and 19 bw illus., index. Distributed by Syracuse University Press. $50.00.

The bookshelves of aficionados of nineteenth-century American furniture will soon feature Masterpieces of American Furniture from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute next to such trusted sources as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s landmark Nineteenth Century America (1970); David Hanks and Donald Peirce’s The Virginia Carroll Crawford Collection of American Decorative Arts, 1825–1917 (1983); and Charles Venable’s American Furniture in the Bybee Collection (1989), to name only a few of the best books relating to museum collections. Like some of its predecessors, the Masterpieces book is a collection catalogue that also accompanies an exhibition, which was on view at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute (MWPI) from May 2 through October 31, 1999, and will be at the Cincinnati Art Museum from February 18 through May 28, 2000. The catalogue features an essay on the history of the collection, fifty-four entries on American furniture by Anna Tobin D’Ambrosio, MWPI curator of decorative arts, and a who’s who of decorative arts curators, academics, and authors.

This book is many things. It is a chronological overview of nineteenth-century American furniture (ca. 1790 through ca. 1920), adding valuable information on the history of collecting, on the interpretation of furniture, and on new research on previously little-known furniture makers. Given the collaborative nature of this project, many of the entries are by scholars who have worked on significant related studies in the past or by those who are presently engaged in assignments, giving readers a preview of more comprehensive research that will be forthcoming. Furthermore, the extensive endnotes in this book document related pieces in other collections and offer a bibliographic survey of previous scholarship.

Masterpieces continues Anna Tobin D’Ambrosio’s predecessor’s work on the MWPI furniture collection: Barbara Franco’s article “New York Furniture Bought for Fountain Elms by James Watson Williams,” published in the September 1973 issue of Antiques. Franco’s article focused on the original furnishings purchased prior to the death of James Watson Williams (d. 1873) from cabinet shops such as Julius Dessoir, Edward Hutchings, James Miller, Charles Baudouine, and others. Expanding upon Franco’s earlier study, Masterpieces covers the entire nineteenth century, showcasing the breadth of the MWPI collection—a collection that now includes more than ten thousand decorative arts objects.

Arranged chronologically, the catalogue’s first entry (by Michael K. Brown) addresses a neoclassical mahogany side chair (ca. 1790–1820) inspired by Thomas Sheraton. Here, Brown, curator of the Bayou Bend collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, draws upon his knowledge and scholarship on the Houston collection, including his own recent contributions to American Decorative Arts and Paintings in the Bayou Bend Collection (1998). Masterpieces ends in the early twentieth century with a Mission-style armchair by Joseph P. McHugh & Company (1896–ca.1920). The natural author for this entry is D’Ambrosio herself, whose recent exhibition and catalogue, “The Distinction of Being Different”: Joseph P. McHugh and the American Arts and Crafts Movement (1993), is among the most significant studies of this maker’s work.

A book of this quality does not materialize without the support of colleagues and outside sources. In this case, the Henry Luce Foundation, through its program intended to bring to light substantive collections that are not widely known, provided funds for the project. The J. M. Kaplan Fund’s publication program and an MWPI endowment, established by David E. and Jane B. Sayre Bryant, offered additional financial support. In addition, D’Ambrosio received a research fellowship at the Winterthur Museum in 1996, where the Joseph Downs Collection of Printed Ephemera provided a rich resource of trade information on furniture-making practices in the United States. Numerous additional museums opened their files to aid the MWPI on this substantial project, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of New York, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Founded in 1936 as an artistic, musical, and social center, the MWPI is located in Utica, New York. Originally housed in the two family homes of Rachel Williams Proctor and Frederick Proctor, and Maria Williams Proctor and Thomas R. Proctor (Rachel and Maria were sisters, and Frederick and Thomas were half brothers), the institute has grown to house one of the United States’ significant nineteenth-century decorative arts collections.

In the late 1950s the MWPI decided to restore Fountain Elms—the former home of Rachel and Frederick Proctor—an 1850s Italianate-style building designed for Rachel’s parents, Helen Elizabeth Munson Williams and James Watson Williams, by Albany, New York, architect William Woollett, Jr. Fountain Elms was an early Victorian house museum and the site of the MWPI’s decorative arts collection—including objects from the family collection and those purchased or given for the refurbishment. In 1990, the board of trustees revised the collection policy to include only objects from nineteenth-century America, focusing on fine craftsmanship, decorative and construction techniques, materials, trade and shop practices, style and taste, European influences, and regional craftsmanship.


Masterpieces is thus part of the MWPI’s 1990 change in policy, which includes a mandate to present scholarship on the collection and make it available to a broad audience. It is the third of an ongoing series of scholarly catalogues highlighting different aspects of the collection. The first of the series—a catalogue of the museum’s American painting collection—was published in 1989, and the second publication (1994) focused on their American drawings.

Although the MWPI series is intended for a broad audience, experts can learn as much about nineteenth-century American furniture from Masterpieces as novices. The inclusion of the evolution of furniture forms and social customs—aspects not always addressed by furniture critics—adds context to connoisseurship. One example is the development of the dining room, its specialized furniture, and the placement of dining tables within this room, explored by Page Talbott in an excellent entry on a mahogany dining table with stenciled decoration (ca. 1825–1835) by an unknown New York State maker. Additionally, analysis of these aspects fosters investigation into pieces by unknown makers and focuses on the historical value of furniture as social documents.

When reading Masterpieces, one is immediately struck by John Bigelow Taylor and Diane Dubler’s photography. Their work is excellent, documenting each object in full color, giving the reader a sense of materials, textures, and details. Especially helpful are details of the various makers’ marks on documented pieces, some having printed paper labels or impressed or stenciled marks. Details of decorative elements include geometric and pictorial inlays, carving, and stenciling; and images of archival sources used for attribution incorporate period bills of sale, correspondence, advertisements, and trade catalogue photographs. The photographic documentation alone in this book makes it an exceptional resource.

But the MWPI did not stop there. Bruce Hoadley of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst performed wood analysis on nearly every object, documenting the usage and popularity of different woods throughout the nineteenth century and suggesting the usefulness of geographically specific woods as indicators of regional origins. For example, one chair in the catalogue (cat. no. 43), believed to come from New York City, was found to include Port-Orford (western Pacific) cedar on its seat cushion frame. Because this wood is specific to the western Pacific region, the results of the wood analysis raise questions about authorship and our conception that pieces of nineteenth-century American furniture were made by one maker. It is possible that the wood frame was made in New York and shipped to California, where the seat cushion frame was added when it was upholstered.

D’Ambrosio’s introductory essay “With Style and Propriety, The Evolution of the Decorative Arts Collection at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Museum of Art” is a gem, adding context to what would otherwise be a chronological catalogue of nineteenth-century American furniture. In it she discusses the interesting lives and collecting habits of James Watson Williams and his wife, Helen Elizabeth Munson Williams, their daughters and sons-in-law, Rachel Williams Proctor and Frederick Proctor and Maria Williams Proctor and Thomas R. Proctor, the eventual founding of the MWPI, and its evolution to the present day.

Based on the extensive documents left by the family (now in the MWPI archives), D’Ambrosio’s essay reveals the lifestyle and spending habits of James and Helen to be quite conservative and economical. Apparently, Helen was less wedded to this lifestyle than was her husband. After the death of James in 1873, Helen and her daughters, Rachel and Maria, began to live life in a high style. They traveled extensively, began collecting paintings, works on paper, and Asian ceramics, and chose a stylish name for their home—“Fountain Elms.” Perhaps the greatest contribution these ladies made to this current study is their renovation of the house interiors from 1876 through the 1880s. At that time they contracted some of the most distinctive names to provide furnishings and interior schemes, including Léon Marcotte, Herter Brothers, and Pottier and Stymus Manufacturing Company (makers whose work the MWPI has actively been collecting in recent years, as can be seen from several outstanding examples in Masterpieces). Although documents of transactions with these important makers exist in the MWPI archives, it seems that relatively few of these furnishings remained in the Proctor collection; hence, the need to acquire them in the present.

Perhaps all of Helen’s lavish displays of wealth were intended to seduce suitable mates for her daughters, who were not getting any younger. By the 1880s, Maria and Rachel were already in their thirties—qualifying them as old maids at that time. Helen must have been relieved to see Maria marry in 1891 (at the age of thirty-nine). Unfortunately, she did not live to see Rachel marry in 1894 (at the age of forty-four). After Helen’s death in 1894, Maria and Rachel and their Proctor husbands continued to collect in their own personal, eclectic style. The R. J. Horner & Company’s bird’s-eye maple desk (ca. 1895–1910) in Masterpieces (cat. no. 53) dates from this third period of family collecting history. It reflects the change in taste from Victorian grandeur to a subtler look, which featured delicate, Louis XV–style furniture and reflects the influence of Ogden Codman and Edith Wharton’s Decoration of Houses (1902). Here readers can see the true significance of the MWPI collection—its illustration of evolving trends and changes in taste over the course of three generations in a single American family.

Among the contributions by twenty-one experts in the field, Kenneth Ames and Katherine Grier add their special charm with entries focusing on furniture as social documents. Masterpieces draws upon their expertise in material culture, as well as their landmark publications: Ames’s Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture (1992) and Grier’s Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery, 1850–1930 (1988). Ames writes of an iron centripetal spring chair (ca. 1849–1858) attributed to Thomas E. Warren and the American Chair Company from Troy, New York, and two handsome Renaissance revival cabinets (ca. 1865–1875), possibly originating in New York City. Grier presents a splendid analysis of an occasional chair (ca. 1880), featuring its original fancy silk and needlework upholstery by an unknown maker.

Typical of high-style examples from this period, the Renaissance revival cabinets discussed in Ames’s entries display an array of exotic woods and veneers, decorative marquetry panels, bronze and metallic medallions and ornaments, porcelain plaques, and gilt bronze ormolu mounts. (The catalogue’s dust jacket features a detail of an ormolu mount, affixed to an ebonized leg on one of these cabinets.) Ames’s analysis addresses the problems encountered when one attempts to name style, a problematic issue for anyone interested in furniture, especially from the second half of the nineteenth century. As he notes, “The style is conventionally described as ‘Renaissance revival,’ a too-simple term that masks its complexity” (p. 158). Often, and more so in recent times, scholars have opted to adopt stylistic names from the period. For example, people now use the period term “modern Gothic” to describe the British reform movement style typified by furniture featuring geometric, non-illusionistic ornament based on nature. These pieces often date from the 1870s in America, whereas the British design sources that inspired them, publications by Charles Locke Eastlake, Bruce J. Talbert, and Christopher Dresser, to name a few, date from the 1860s and 1870s. With tongue-in-cheek, Ames offers readers (p. 158) several unsatisfactory terms that were used to describe the Renaissance revival style of the period: the “German-French-Roman-Greek style” from Charles Wyllys Elliott’s “Household Art,” or the “German-French-bastard style” (The Art Journal 1 [1875]: 299). Despite their inclusive, descriptive, and comical character, there is little chance these alternatives will upset Renaissance revival’s place in the stylistic vocabulary. Ames’s criticism raises a timely issue with which decorative arts scholars are constantly grappling: What is the appropriate vocabulary for the field? Should it be art historical (not exactly), or based on the rule of kings, queens, or elected presidents (confusing)? Should it be based on terms used during the period? Or, should there be a distinct language (too ambitious)? Obviously, this issue is in need of further attention.

Katherine Grier examines a richly upholstered occasional chair (cat. no. 51) that follows the elaborate style popular in the French Second Empire period (1852–1870). Based on a “Turkish fauteuil” form, the chair sits low to the ground and displays a black silk satin tufted cushion that completely covers the chair’s seat and back in a continuous curve that terminates in a scroll at the top of the chair’s crest. Yellow and black silk tassels hang around the entire bottom of the seat rail, obscuring any attention that could be paid to the legs—the only visible elements on this chair that would allow the viewer to admire the wood craftsman’s work. This chair’s significance is not based on its woodwork; rather, it is an amazing survival of the upholsterer’s role in this period, and it still has its original upholstery.

The chair is a Victorian dream, or a Modernist’s nightmare, as Grier points out in a citation from Siegfreid Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (1948): “Giedion bemoaned the era of their creation as a ‘Reign of the Upholsterer’ and decried designs like this one as ‘blubbery’ and ‘boneless’” (p. 164). As noted by Grier, the low-lying form “invited sensual, relaxed postures different from the deportment required in formal social life.” Setting aside the fact that they were terribly expensive and impractical, it is no wonder they were not popular among the prudish, no-nonsense American middle- and upper middle-class audience during the earlier decades of the design’s life in the 1850s and 1860s. One can hardly imagine the frugal James Watson Williams sitting back in a Turkish fauteuil in a silk robe and fez, languidly smoking from a hookah pipe, although one can more easily imagine James’s wife, Helen, and daughters Maria and Rachel (after James’s death in 1873) laying back in the exotic atmosphere in which this chair might be found. In fact, chairs like this one, with its contrasting strip of needlework running from the crest to the seat rail, were popular in America after 1870. The ca. 1880 date of this chair coincides with the time Helen, Maria, and Rachel spent traveling and collecting together, prior to Helen’s death in 1894.

The catalogue’s extensive endnotes include helpful lists of related holdings in other museum and private collections, research currently ongoing in the field, and chronological bibliographies of published works on specific topics—invaluable sources for any scholar in the field. For example, Ed Polk Douglas’s footnotes (pp. 162–63) on an attributed Kilborn Whitman & Company’s (Boston, Massachusetts) gilt, modern Gothic side chair (ca.1880) cite primary and secondary sources dating from 1868 to 1997—Charles Locke Eastlake’s Hints on Household Taste to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center’s “Examination Record” in the MWPI research files, respectively—noting each source’s significance in meticulous detail. Other entries are equally rich in this sort of material.

Another bonus is the well-documented provenance of each piece, which gives readers the history of ownership, often including the names of the original owner, subsequent collectors, antique dealers from whom the MWPI has purchased, and philanthropic sources for MWPI acquisitions. This information gives readers an idea of where and at what time people collected different styles of furniture. A rosewood and mahogany worktable (ca. 1846) by Charles Baudouine from New York is one catalogued example with an interesting provenance (cat. no. 26). It was among the original contents of the Proctor collection and illustrates James Watson Williams’s patronage of one of New York City’s most respected furniture manufacturers, as well as the conservative, frugal taste of this man from upstate New York. The MWPI archives have a letter dated July 11, 1846, from James to his fiancée, Helen Elisabeth Munson, documenting his purchase, taste, and contemporary alternatives to his choice. The letter reads: “After looking various places for a gift for you, I have selected at Baudouine’s, a work table which I am sure must please you; no lacquerwork, nor papier mache, nor tinsel of any sort; but a neat, well-made, and convenient table of the most approved French pattern.” From this provenance, one may conclude that the audience in Utica, New York, was aware of high-style makers in New York City and collected furniture in the current styles. One may also deduce that some upstate clients, like James, preferred less ornate furniture to the elaborate, and perhaps pretentious, alternatives purchased by their urban peers.

In addition, provenance records list the names of significant antique dealers from whom the MWPI has obtained furniture, such as the well-known dealers Israel Sack and Margot Johnson, whose trailblazing efforts took place before museums were actively collecting objects from this period. These and other dealers cited in the catalogue were influential in making nineteenth-century American furniture a respected field of study. They, too, are a part of the history. 

Provenance documents the museum’s history of collecting and changing collection policies. From the accession numbers, one may note the years in which the MWPI made significant acquisitions. Fourteen pieces in the catalogue originally came from the founders of the MWPI collection. These are identified as coming from the Proctor collection and are followed by an accession number beginning with the initials “PC.” In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the refurbishment of Fountain Elms took place, numerous museum acquisitions were made, including the Philadelphia dining table (ca. 1820–1840), on which Donald L. Fennimore contributed an entry, acquired from Israel Sack in 1960. Another fifteen of the catalogued pieces entered the collection since 1989, reflecting the board of trustees’ mandate to focus on the nineteenth century and add interpretive depth to the collection. A number of these pieces date to the last quarter of the century and were acquired from Margot Johnson, David Petrovsky, Cathers and Dembrosky, Inc., and other respected antique dealers specializing in the aesthetic and arts and crafts movements—areas in which the MWPI has been actively collecting.

Masterpieces is a strong addition to scholarship on nineteenth-century American furniture. It is beautifully illustrated with all color photographs, and the successful coordination of this collaborative effort is worthy of the highest praise. For the most part, this reviewer is pleased with the book but would like to offer a few constructive comments and criticisms. For example, it would have been helpful to have included short biographies on the contributors, listing their work and publications in the areas on which they were asked to write; a bibliography; and references to the names of contributors in the index. Since extensive wood analysis was undertaken in conjunction with this project, it would have been useful to have had the primary and secondary woods identified and wood veneer distinguished from solid wood on each entry. Similarly, in the case of metallic mounts, hardware, and other materials, such as gilded gesso, it would be helpful to know if they were stamped, molded, or wrought.

In keeping with the MWPI’s recent change in their collection policy to acquire works that are representative of “the impact of changing American lifestyles on the country’s furniture” and “regional craftsmanship,” it seems that too much primacy is given to New York City and the Northeast. Although there were several examples from Philadelphia and Baltimore, a catalogue more representative of these goals would have included examples from the South, as explored by Ronald Hurst and Jonathan Prown in their watershed catalogue, Southern Furniture, 1680–1830 (1997). Additionally, the Midwest and West received little or no attention despite Ed Polk Douglas’s recognition that by 1880 the leading cities manufacturing furniture included Chicago and Cincinnati in addition to New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

In conclusion, the reviewer would like to provide readers with some information missing in the text. Twenty-one experts in the field collaborated to make Masterpieces a state-of-the-art work. Kenneth L. Ames, Michael K. Brown, Anna Tobin D’Ambrosio, Ed Polk Douglas, Donald L. Fennimore, Katherine C. Grier, Donald Peirce, Page Talbott, and Charles L. Venable have been acknowledged elsewhere in this review. Other contributors worked on topics coinciding with their specialized knowledge. They include Donald Scott Bell, Jerry V. Grant, Barry R. Harwood, Judith S. Hull, Jack L. Lindsey, Robert D. Mussey, Jr., Jodi A. Pollack, Timothy D. Rieman, Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, Gerald W. R. Ward, Janet Zapata, and Philip Zea. Donald Scott Bell is an MWPI intern who did a great deal of the primary research for Masterpieces, much of which he shared with the other scholars working on the project. Jerry V. Grant and Timothy Rieman are both Shaker experts; Grant works at the Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham, New York, and Rieman has published extensively on the subject, including the exhibition catalogue, Shaker: The Art of Craftsmanship (1995), on the Mount Lebanon collection. Barry Harwood is associate curator of decorative arts at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and author and curator of The Furniture of George Hunzinger: Invention and Innovation in Nineteenth-Century America (1997). Judith S. Hull wrote her doctoral dissertation on Richard Upjohn and is working on a forthcoming book on the subject. Jack L. Lindsey is curator of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Robert D. Mussey, Jr., is a furniture conservator and co-author of a forthcoming book entitled John and Thomas Seymour, Cabinetmakers: Devon Culture and Craft to America. Jodi A. Pollack wrote her master’s thesis, “Three Generations of Meeks Craftsmen, 1797–1869” (1998), for the masters program in the history of decorative arts at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, sponsored by Parsons School of Design. Catherine Hoover Voorsanger is associate curator in the department of American decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; she is presently working on the exhaustive, forthcoming exhibition Art and the Empire City (2000). Voorsanger graciously gave the MWPI access to the exhibition files. Gerald W. R.Ward is the Carolyn and Peter Lynch Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Janet Zapata is an expert on Tiffany & Co. and author of The Silver of Tiffany & Co. 1850–1987 (1987). Philip Zea, at the time of writing, was chief curator at Historic Deerfield, Massachusetts; he is now curator of furniture at Colonial Williamsburg.

Anna Tobin D’Ambrosio, her colleagues at the MWPI, and the contributors to the Masterpieces catalogue and exhibition must be commended for their team spirit and determination to coordinate this ambitious project. Not only is it difficult to find the right experts but to get them all to write according to the same guidelines, so that none of the entries are conflicting or incongruous, is a monumental task for which they should all be applauded. In keeping with the goal of the Henry Luce Foundation, which supported the project, the quality of this publication will certainly bring the MWPI collection to the attention of all those interested in what may be the most exciting period of American furniture history—the nineteenth century.

Heidi Nasstrom
Masters Program in the History of Decorative Arts 
at The Smithsonian Associates, offered in collaboration with Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and Parsons School of Design

American Furniture 1999

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