- 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
Christian Herter’s leadership of the firm coincided with the emergence of the decorative arts at the forefront of America’s art culture. During the 1870s America’s most acclaimed artist, Frederick Church, effectively retired from painting to devote his energies to what he regarded as the higher purpose of building and furnishing his Hudson Valley home, Olana. And at expositions in Vienna, Paris, London, and Philadelphia, the nations of the world competed for supremacy in the production of art goods, especially ceramics, glass, bronze, ivories, and exotic metals. Ceramics have never, before or since, held such high prestige in the arts as in the 1870s and early 1880s, precisely the years of Christian Herter’s tenure. The cabinet, created as a theatrical stage for the display of decorative art, was the quintessential form of the age and offered unlimited possibilities for interpretation. Herter’s cabinets—museums in miniature—are his most prized creations.
One of the earliest was made for George Sloan of Oswego, New York. Modeled after a closely related cabinet made about the same time by a well-known British designer, James Lamb of Manchester, it shows Herter reaching toward a new style. Its rigid linearity, flattened surfaces, and intricate details became hallmarks of Christian Herter’s best work. From its delicate brass gallery to the alternating bands of gilt and black that ornament its turned feet, this cabinet is a study in the spectacle that can be achieved in purely gridlike structures. Herter’s signature marquetry is reduced to mere accents that are subordinate to painted panels depicting sensual and willowy maidens- worldly angels—floating -in a mist of gold tendrils. Installed with carefully chosen and arranged ceramic treasures, this cabinet became a dense and theatrical performance that proclaimed the command and aesthetic control of its owner.
Herter Brothers took advantage of custom commissions to improve its skills, test the use of rare and exotic materials, and broaden its interpretative range. As the form most given to display and frivolity, the cabinet offered seemingly unlimited potential for expansion and adaptation. Alas, the one described by the exhibition co-curator Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, also of the Metropolitan, as Herter’s “best and most original” has no known history of ownership, although Theodore Roosevelt’s family possessed a similar example. Its success owes more to imagination than ostentation, and although it deploys a number of Herter’s signature features- floral marquetry, carved and pierced fretwork panels, gilded incising, and carved griffins—the overall composition is aggressively inventive and, says Voorsanger, “purely American.” Here are many of the signature motifs of the reform style known as the aesthetic movement. Deliberately and flamboyantly “handcrafted,” it features an aesthetic grid turned up and on end with succulent bands of carved and colorfully stained leaves and flowers and bold checkerboard veneer accents at each corner, surrounding a marquetry panel that is Herter’s pièce de résistance . Indeed, this composition has come to represent the ultimate incarnation of American aesthetic reform. Japanese cranes, snakes clenched in their beaks, flank a stylized urn amid a forest of bamboo leaves and flowers. Light and dark, art and nature, handicraft and technology—this cabinet is an essay in design that in a quietly subversive way also addresses the ambivalence at the core of late Victorian “progress.”
Christian Herter was among the first American designers to adopt Japanese ornament. Even before the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, where Japan’s displays triggered a national vogue, Herter Brothers had responded to the experiments in Japanesque design of E. W. Godwin and other British furniture makers and architects.
Herter’s first known commission involving the new Anglo-Japanese aesthetic was for the insurance magnate Maj. James Goodwin. Prompted by his son, the Reverend Francis Goodwin, the major, then almost seventy years old, demanded the largest and most ambitious house ever built in Hartford, Connecticut. At its completion in 1874 Woodlands was a vast castlelike structure of Rhode Island gray granite that included an ecclesiastic Gothic mansion with an attached servant wing, a coach house and stables, and twelve acres of sweeping lawns, a pond, flower gardens, a rustic cottage in a grove of trees, and pastures of grazing cows, all within city limits.
CHRISTIAN HERTER’S FORTE WAS THE ORCHESTRATION OF EXOTIC MATERIALS INTO A HARMONIOUS BLEND OF CARVING, MARQUETRY, GILDING, AND PAINTING.
For all its influence, surprisingly little is known about the business side of Herter Brothers. The firm seems to have relied on word-of-mouth advertising. J. Pierpont Morgan and the Reverend Goodwin, for instance, were cousins, contemporaries, and boyhood friends, and Morgan, who first purchased furniture from Gustave Herter in 1862, went on to commission Herter Brothers for increasingly ambitious decorating campaigns.