Classical Splendor: Painted Furniture for a Grand Philadelphia House
The Philadelphia Museum of Art presents an exhibition showcasing a remarkable set of early nineteenth-century painted and gilded furniture that profoundly influenced American art and design. The display of this ensemble, made in Philadelphia in 1808 by British architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe for the fashionable house of William and Mary Wilcocks Waln, celebrates the completion of a period of extensive study and conservation treatment of these works. Classical Splendor: Painted Furniture for a Grand Philadelphia House offers new perspectives on the makers, the patrons, and the furniture’s original appearance, revealing Latrobe’s bold vision and illuminating the extraordinary history of these treasured works of art.
Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and CEO, said: “The Waln furniture—a cornerstone of our collection of American decorative arts—survives as one of the greatest artistic triumphs of the early national period. Our extensive research and conservation provides a vivid picture of just how innovative the designs were in the their day, greatly advancing our knowledge of Latrobe’s contribution to American neoclassicism.”
Enterprising merchant William Waln and his wife Mary Wilcocks had aristocratic ambitions. They commissioned Latrobe to design their house as well as its interior wall treatments and furnishings. In this work Latrobe introduced a new visual language in American art, one that offered a new interpretation of classicism that directly imitated ancient Greek and Roman art. The exhibition highlights Latrobe’s “klismos” design, based on the model of an ancient Greek chair, and reveals the decorative artist George Bridport as a visionary artist who translated Latrobe’s designs into the classical designs for the decorated walls and furniture. An evocation in the exhibition of the Walns’ drawing room explores the role of the furniture in the context of the architecture of their house.
One year after Latrobe designed the Waln furniture, he was commissioned to reconfigure and refurnish the public rooms of the President’s House in Washington, D.C., for President James Madison and his wife Dolley. The success of the Walns’ furniture inspired a closely related design for the furniture of the Oval Drawing Room, which burned in 1814.
Financial troubles struck the Walns in 1821, and they were forced to sell their lavish household furnishings to pay creditors. Their house, which stood at the southeast corner of Seventh and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, was torn down in 1847. It is known today only through the furniture, a single watercolor, fire insurance surveys, and a handful of descriptions. Classical Splendor features the most cohesive assemblage to date of the furniture Latrobe designed for this house: seven chairs, two card tables, a sideboard, a sofa, and a settee, all made by cabinetmaker John Aitken (c. 1790–1839), painted and gilded by decorative artist George Bridport (1783–1819), and, except for the tables and sideboard, upholstered by John Rea (1774–1871).
Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, The Montgomery-Garvan Curator of American Decorative Arts, said: “The fruits of our work have led us to present the Waln furniture in a new light. After years of research on the artists who made it and the context for which it was created, we are displaying it in a way we believe early Philadelphians would have experienced the furniture. When visitors from around the world saw the brilliant furniture in the conservation labs during its treatment, it appeared so modern in spirit that they guessed it had been made in the twentieth century in Italy, London, or Paris.”
Co-curator Peggy A. Olley, the Museum’s Associate Conservator of Furniture and Woodwork who spearheaded the conservation project, said: “With every new discovery, the team came closer to Latrobe’s vision and revealed the incredible skills of the artists who executed his design. The collaborative nature of this project reflects the same spirit that originally went into the creation of the Walns’ furniture and house.”
Interactive kiosks throughout the exhibition invite visitors to explore the house, the creation of the furniture, and the investigative process of the research and conservation. Visitors can experience the effects of the morning, afternoon, and evening lighting on the room and furniture.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue by Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley and Peggy A. Olley at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with an essay by Latrobe scholar Jeffrey A. Cohen, and architectural renderings and conjectural floorplans by James B. Garrison.
Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, The Montgomery-Garvan Curator of American Decorative Arts
Peggy A. Olley, Associate Conservator of Furniture and Woodwork
Honickman and Berman Galleries, ground floor
This exhibition was made possible by The Richard C. von Hess Foundation and The Laura and William C. Buck Endowment for Exhibitions, as well as Linda H. Kaufman, Stiles Tuttle Colwill, Kathy and Ted Fernberger, Leslie Miller and Richard Worley, Boo and Morris Stroud, and other generous donors.
The publication is supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Fund for Scholarly Publications at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Conservation support was provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Richard C. von Hess Foundation, Henry Luce Foundation, and The Women’s Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
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