"Masterpieces of American Furniture" at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art, Utica, N.Y., May 2-Oct. 31, 1999.
Marking the first in-depth analysis of American furniture in the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute collection, the Museum of Art at the Institute has mounted a major installation of 60 works. The comprehensive exhibition traces the stylistic evolution of American cabinetmaking from Neoclassicism to the Arts and Crafts movement, along with the ornamental approaches and techniques favored by Victorian period craftsmen.
Particularly fascinating are a secretary bookcase and a worktable made around 1825-1835 by the Philadelphia cabinetmaker Anthony G. Quervelle (1789-1856). Born in France, Quervelle emigrated from Paris around 1817, and married Louise Geneviève Monot, another Parisian living in Philadelphia. He was naturalized in 1823 and in 1825 opened the United States Fashionable Cabinet Warehouse at 126 South Second Street in Philadelphia. He lived there until 1849, frequently winning prizes at the annual mechanical arts exhibitions at the Franklin Institute.
The decade between 1825 and 1835, the last phase of the classical revival, was Quervelle's most productive period. The volume of his work was so enormous that when he claimed in a newspaper announcement to have "the largest and most fashionable assortment of furniture ever yet offered for sale in this city," he probably wasn't exaggerating. Quervelle's craftsmanship was in fact so highly regarded that in 1829 President Andrew Jackson's administration commissioned him to produce a series of marble-topped center and pier tables for the East Room of the White House. Thanks to his industriousness and talent, he was later able to amass considerable holdings of property inside and outside Philadelphia, much of which he possessed at the time of his death.
Quervelle gave his furniture an air of majesty, and transformed the French Restoration and late English Regency patterns he employed into distinctly personal expressions. Like his greatest predecessors in the 18th century, he worked for some of the wealthiest and most distinguished Philadelphia families. He may have derived his fondness for gadrooning and intricate Acanthus foliage from the furniture he observed in his patrons' homes.
The tall (102 inches high) secretary bookcase in the Munson-Williams-Proctor collection illustrates Quervelle's French training, along with his exceptional designing, carving and cabinetmaking abilities. Its brilliantly figured crotch-grain mahogany-veneered surfaces and richly applied ornaments and carving illustrate his immense skill as an ebeniste, or veneer worker.
The radiating fan that decorates the lower doors of the secretary's case is composed of applied rounded wedges veneered with figured mahogany and burl ash. The diamond-and-arch mullion patterns on the case doors are closely associated with "Chinese" and "Gothic" designs published in George Smith's Collection of Designs for Household Furniture (1808), which was widely distributed in Philadelphia and apparently a major source of inspiration for Quervelle.
Also on view in the exhibition is a recently discovered sketchbook (from the Philadelphia Museum of Art) with script notations by Quervelle. One pen-and-ink drawing shows a secretary bookcase whose overall form, case divisions and placement of ornaments correspond to the secretary discussed above. Furthermore, the sketch shows similar raised veneered panels, and includes the same center drawers and stepped-back plinths above the lower columns.
Philadelphia cabinetmakers, including Quervelle, also made elegantly crafted ladies' worktables -- an innovation of the Federal period -- with fitted interior compartments and drawers. Featured in English and French pattern books and fashion periodicals during the late 18th century, the earliest forms had light proportions, were embellished with exotic wood veneers and were fitted with ornately pleated and trimmed textile work bags. In the 1820s, under the influence of French Empire and Restoration styles, which emphasized curved profiles and larger dimensions, these tables grew heavier and their decoration became more architectural. Delicately turned legs and bases gave way to a variety of ornately carved central supports with platforms on lion's paw feet.
Quervelle's worktables are all made of veneered and carved mahogany on a carcass of pine and tulip poplar. The support column of the ca. 1825-35 example in the Munson-Williams-Proctor collection is carved with scrolled leaves flanked by crisply turned concentric rings. The concave sides of the column's platform and the carved scroll-and-paw feet are closely related to engravings of a dressing stand depicted on Quervelle's furniture labels and in his sketchbook. The rounded corners, convex upper drawer front, and architectonically arched and recessed façade of the deep lower drawer play off one another to produce a simple, graceful balance.
Quervelle produced striking symmetrically centered patterns on the body of the table using richly figured, crotch-grained mahogany veneers, as on the secretary. There is no stylistic progression in Quervelle's worktables; they have the same rhythmically balanced design, the same handsome, spirited carving, and the same suggestion of monumentality. These details, along with many of the dominant motifs in the worktable, are repeated in Quervelle's pier tables, pedestal tables, case pieces, sofas, chairs and beds.
It is especially significant that Quervelle favored monumentality in his worktable designs, considering that this type of furniture originated at the court of Louis XV and was initially admired for its subtle decoration. But Quervelle's animated decorative devices convey a sense of vivacious reality, which helped him to avoid the somnolent heaviness of form and hackneyed decoration that marred the work of so many of his contemporaries.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American decorative arts at Sotheby's.