- Historic Sites
A PAIR OF GERMAN-BORN CRAFTSMEN BEGAN BY MAKING EXUBERANT FURNITURE AND WENT ON TO SHOW A NEWLY RICH GENERATION HOW TO LIVE
February/March 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 1
America. the industrial age. Machines, steam, and iron. The picture of progress. But also a nation in mourning. Mourning its Civil War dead, mourning its loss of innocence, and deeply ambivalent about the forces of change. Onto this stage stepped two dapper German cosmopolites—Gustave and Christian Herter—impresarios of interior design and cabinetmakers to the stars. In three centuries of American furniture, there has never been an artist or craftsman who so shaped the taste of the rich and aspiring or whose work so epitomized its age as Herter Brothers. Through its art Herter Brothers helped America’s newly rich come to terms with their success and, indeed, to flaunt it. Herter’s legacy is one of startling achievement, and it vindicates what is perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood epoch in American art.
Herter Brothers is currently the subject of an impressive exhibition, the result of a collaboration between the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is the third installment in a twenty-five-year program with which the Metropolitan’s American Wing and a constellation of colleagues, collectors, and friends have reclaimed from the junk pile of history the art of America’s brilliant and resourceful adolescence.
WHO BOUGHT THIS EBULLIENT FURNITURE? AMERICA’S VICTORIAN NOUVEAUX RICHES, GROPING FOR RESPECTABILITY AND UNPREPARED FOR THE PUBLIC GAZE AT THEIR PRIVATE LIVES.
Shaker simplicity it is not. But who says Shaker rules? The persistent rivalry between modern and traditional art, elegance and excess, form and ornament, has so colored popular taste that the very word Victorian conjures up associations that still make some people cringe. It is convenient when taste leans toward that which is relatively easy (and cheap) to make. But if there is virtue in taking the longer, steeper road, then the furniture of Herter Brothers represents the pinnacle of American achievement in decorative art. Their swirls and pirouettes of virtuosity, the persistence of their innovation, and the sheer audacity of building bigger and bolder forms in wood—and every other material under the sun—make Herter Brothers the premier innovators in furniture design, in an age that took its furniture very seriously.
Gustave Herter, the elder brother and founder of the partnership, was a “forty-eighter”—the victim of and refugee from the political and economic upheavals that rolled across Europe in 1848, spawning the largest wave of immigrants yet to arrive on American shores. The son of a Stuttgart ébéniste —a cabinetmaker specializing in veneer and inlay—he planted an inheritance of skill in the free trade soil of New York’s thriving antebellum furniture industry. Variously described as a sculptor and woodcarver, Gustave Herter rose swiftly to prominence. In 1853 he gained notoriety and acclaim by exhibiting a monumental carved oak sideboard at New York’s Crystal Palace exhibition. By the end of the decade he had become an industrialist employing one hundred men in an operation that was rapidly becoming the ranking furniture and design emporium in America. Concept and execution remained ever united in the mind, if not hand, of Gustave Herter.
One of the earliest works attributed to Herter is an “exhibition stand” that, in form and expression, proclaims the emerging cosmopolitanism of both patron and maker. Such a form, intended for a room filled with books and pictures, had no place in the American home even a decade earlier. But during the 1850s Americans embraced art and literature as never before and created the first domestic art galleries. This table, essentially a glorified easel composed of sliding and folding supports, was used to hold art books and pictures, and it endowed with spectacle the very act of viewing art. The design shows Gustave Herter, the “sculptor,” carver, and artist-cum-industrialist, drawing on an expansive vocabulary of masks, griffins, columns, garlands, and shells to create a carved form of unprecedented mastery.