The French émigré ébéniste (furniture maker) Charles-Honoré Lannuier is without question one of the most impressive cabinetmakers in American history, although he only worked for 16 short years in New York City before his death in 1819 at the age of 40. For years he has been in the shadow of the far better known New York cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe (1768-1854), who received a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as early as 1922. By comparison, it was not until then that the name Lannuier even began to emerge. Subsequently, serious research -- by such notable scholars as Joseph Downs, Berry B. Tracy and now Peter M. Kenny -- has progressed, but ever so slowly, taking three quarters of a century to produce an extensive appraisal and presentation of his oeuvre. Organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Honoré Lannuier, Parisian Cabinetmaker in Federal New York" is on view until June 14, 1998. Four American Wing galleries, complemented by a permanent period room nearby, are devoted to showing more than 60 objects -- primarily furniture but also paintings and works on paper -- 42 of which are by or attributed to Lannuier.
It is surprising that the museum has not mounted a monographic exhibition on Lannuier before now. Few major American cabinetmakers have as many surviving documented works of such high esthetic merit as Lannuier, according to exhibition curator Peter Kenny. Significantly, of the 125 known listed works in the catalogue, the majority are labeled, stamped, signed or otherwise documented to Lannuier. As viewers survey some of these superb examples of craftsmanship in the exhibition, a portrayal of this master ébéniste quickly unfolds. Determined to promote himself, especially to the merchant elite, as a "French Cabinet Maker From Paris," Lannuier never lost sight of his Parisian cabinetmaking traditions while he adapted to the American way so that his furniture carries a highly distinct personal signature, impossible for others to recreate.
Lannuier's masterpieces first became desirable for prominent American collections about 50 years ago. While in 1945 the Metropolitan Museum bought its initial work, a perfectly proportioned classical card table, it was another 20 years before it acquired the gilded figural furniture of his mature style, such as the rosewood and maple veneer card table with a winged caryatid shown here. In the 1950's Henry Francis du Pont and his staff joined in, acquiring furniture for his soon to be famous house-museum in Winterthur, Delaware. A mahogany, maple and rosewood veneer work table embellished with lyres of 1817 is among the five Winterthur loans to the exhibition. The White House also actively collected Lannuier furniture between the Kennedy and Reagan administrations. Though none of these examples are featured in the exhibition, five are pictured in the catalogue, including an exceptional small gueridon of about 1810 with bronze busts and a specimen marble top.
In the first gallery of the exhibition, focusing on "The Styles of Lannuier's Youth," it is explained that Lannuier moved to Paris from Chantilly at the end of the 18th century to presumably study under his older sibling Nicolas-Louis-Cyrille Lannuier, a prominent ébéniste working between 1783 and about 1804. Two examples by Nicolas are in the exhibition, one of them being a mahogany veneer commode with a gilded brass and marble top of 1790. His neoclassical influences perpetuated in the early work of Honoré Lannuier between 1803 when he arrived in New York and about 1810. While his earliest signed and dated work, an 1804 inlayed mahogany table with reeded legs and a brass framed marble specimen top, unfortunately is not in the exhibition, a number of other examples mark these formative years, among them a lovely mahogany trictrac table for backgammon, cards or writing, and a delicate occasional table of satinwood crossbanded with exotic hardwoods, which bears the earliest of his three printed labels.
A spacious second gallery displays three types of furniture -- card tables, pier tables and bedsteads -- each group arranged so that connoisseur-oriented viewers can compare stylistic developments, in some cases from the Directoire (1795-1799) and Consulat (1799-1804) to his mature American Empire. The most intriguing examples are the French-inspired bedsteads. One of the earliest is simply adorned with eagles gracing the sides of the head- and footboards, the top of each finished with scrolls, a design feature probably copied in the 1817 price book The New-York Book of Prices for Manufacturing Cabinet and Chair Work.The marvelous canopy on a later mahogany bedstead was recently restored with upholstery designed after engravings in Pierre de La Mésangère's Collection de Meubles et Objets de Goût (1802-1835), some of which are on display. Lannuier's most elegant example, however, made during the last two years of his life for Stephen and Harriet Van Rensselaer IV, "is simply the richest and most beautiful ever made in America," says Kenny. Probably custom designed, it stands apart from the others for its superior stamped brass-and-wood borders and applied gilded-brass ornaments of winged griffins, rams' heads and winged goddesses, some of which could be derived from Percier and Fontaine's famous Recueil de décorations intérieures of 1812.
Both the four bedsteads and four square pier tables exhibited are among the six monumental French forms that came into standard production during Lannuier's tenure in America, "a testament," claims the curator, "to Lannuier's marketing skills and his leadership role in the trade." Though the five card table forms are not French in origin, they admirably illustrate Lannuier's burgeoning ability to marry the French esthetic with the New York vernacular as well as the English Regency influences then prevalent in America. An 1810 to 1812 mahogany table made for the merchant Isaac Bell displays such French furniture characteristics as Tuscan columnar supports and Egyptian hieroglyphic die-stamped brass inlays. While the crisp, bold silhouette of the top section recalls the le goût antique of the Consulat period, the pillar-and-claw base is straight from London and the carved foliage on the saber legs is "classic New York Phyfe-school fashion."
A highlight in the gallery is two of the 23 extant mahogany armchairs completed in 1812 for the Common Council Chamber in the new City Hall -- Lannuier's only public commission. A watercolor of the room by Charles Burton in about 1831 shows that they were placed around a horseshoe desk configuration. Once again this master's genius for melding various design traditions together is present: the backs are derived from the French neoclassical forms of Louis XVI while the urn-shaped supports are English and the carved legs with reeds and water leaves are quintessentially New York. The new red wool upholstery is based on an 1816 portrait by John Wesley Jarvis of Mayor De Witt Clinton standing in front of a crimson chair with black twisted cord and brass nails, which also may have been in the chamber.
The furniture in the third gallery, devoted to Lannuier's mature antique style of 1812 to 1819, possesses a daring monumentality, a dazzling and sumptuous use of materials, and many exquisitely sculpted figures -- including classical winged monopodes, griffins, lyres and caryatids, the latter considered the most beautifully rendered of all the New York furniture makers. The elegant ottomans and chairs, all with splendid sculptural forms, are from a suite of at least 16 pieces once owned by Baltimore merchant James Bosley. Surprisingly, with the exception of the City Hall chairs, these are the only known seating furniture by Lannuier. His later furniture also is recognized for such qualities as refined die-stamped brass-and-woodborders, large cyma-recta moldings and near-perfect gilding, as exhibited on the marble topsquare pier table. Lannuier's exceptional canted corners, such as those on the card table of maple and rosewood veneer, are always perfectly covered with book-matched veneers so that the flow of the grain is uninterrupted.
In the small fourth gallery, seven pieces of furniture by unknown makers are displayed for comparative purposes. When the five tables are evaluated against the sole Lannuier card table, the difference in the quality of workmanship is indeed apparent, especially the inferior sculpted supports. A final display, outside this gallery, compares a Lannuier pembroke table with three other pieces of furniture that were at one time attributed to Lannuier (but are no longer). Although such identifications are a great contribution to scholarship, one is left wondering just how Lannuier compares to other great masters working at the time -- such as the New York cabinetmaker Michael Allison (w. 1800-1847) or even the French-born Philadelphia cabinetmaker Michel Bouvier (1792-1874). Even more noticeably missing is a dialogue about Duncan Phyfe, the Scottish-born cabinetmaker who dominated the trade above all others. Frequently serving as a bench mark for the period, Phyfe has been compared to and even mistaken with Lannuier (an example being his early trictrac table). With his furniture shown in almost complete isolation, many viewers may well walk away with little sense of how Lannuier's oeuvre sizes up to his peer's or to early 19th-century American taste.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, Honoré Lannuier: Cabinetmaker from Paris: The Life and Work of a French ébéniste in Federal New York, published by the Metropolitan Museum, with essays by Peter Kenny, associate curator, American decorative arts; Frances F. Bretter, research associate; and Ulrich Leben, deputy keeper of the collection at Waddesdon Manor in England. Though the catalogue surpasses the initial task of documenting Lannuier's known works and provides a thorough explanation of the early 19th-century cabinetmaking trade in America, as well as France, the many suppositions about the nature of Lannuier's business and his French influences detract from the scholarly nature of the project. Nonetheless, the catalogue will long remain an important reference for anyone researching the subject.
In conjunction with the exhibition, a symposium titled "A Tale of Two Cities: Fine Furniture-Making in Paris and New York in a New Republican Age, 1790-1820" will be held on Friday, April 24th in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum. The roster of speakers is impressive: Morrison Heckscher, Wendy Cooper, Ulrich Leben, Hans Ottomeyer, Peter M. Kenny, Sean Wilentz and Stuart P. Feld. Though no reservations are required, additional information may be obtained by calling (212) 570-3710.
MARY ANNE HUNTING is a freelance writer specializing in the decorative arts.