March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
The horn of plenty may never have seemed as bounteous as it did to the generation of Americans that came of age in the prosperous 1850s. The tastemakers of the period favored ostentatious furnishings that symbolized their success, such as the exquisite chair opposite, made in about 1855 by John Henry Belter, New York’s leading cabinetmaker of his day. The intricately carved back of the chair—aswarm with grapevines and framed by sinuous cornucopias—instilled in its sitters the agreeable sensation that the harvest was in, the granaries full, and the wine cellar well stocked.
Belter started life with the given name Johann Heinrich in Germany, where he was born in 1804. As an apprentice in Württemberg, he learned both cabinetmaking and carving. In 1833 he emigrated to the United States. His passport described him as five feet seven inches tall, with brown hair and gray eyes and “incomplete” teeth. In 1839, having Anglicized his name to John Henry Belter, he became an American citizen. Five years later he opened a shop on Chatham Street, then New York’s fashionable cabinetmaking center.
Belter’s entry into the highly competitive New York furniture business coincided with the rise of rococo revival, one of the many historical styles that were recycled throughout the nineteenth century in a seemingly endless wave of nostalgia for earlier eras. Belter arrived on the scene too late for the Greek and Egyptian updates, but his timing—and his talents—were ideal for the new version of rococo, known in its day as “Antique French” and the pre-eminent style in mid-century America.
The rococo-revival style derived its sinuous contours and swirling arrangements of scrolls from the designs of the Louis XV period. Belter’s chair reveals the influence of this style in the curvature of its front seat rail, cabriole legs, and scroll feet. But he contributed his own brand of design wizardry in the intricate elaboration of natural forms, sometimes delicately traced, sometimes almost sensuous in their three-dimensionality, and in so doing created a uniquely American interpretation of an international style.
This type of chair, easily recognized by its relatively low seat and correspondingly high back, is often designated as a “slipper chair”—that is, a chair with short legs used in the bedroom. “But I’ve never seen this form described as a slipper chair in any period reference,” says Ulysses Dietz, curator of decorative arts at the Newark Museum, in Newark, New Jersey. He has seen inventories, however, that refer to it as a “fancy chair” or “reception chair.” Such chairs were intentionally made as virtuoso works and used singly or paired in parlors as conversation pieces. “They were to be perched on, rather than sat in,” Dietz adds. In any case, the pierced and carved chair back is an outstanding example of both style and craft and “an extraordinary tour de force,” to quote Marshall B. Davidson and Elizabeth Stillinger, coauthors of The American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Metropolitan has owned this Belter chair since 1951).
Belter was a technological innovator who developed a sophisticated process of laminating and molding wood. He typically glued together six to eight thin layers of rosewood, arranged so that the grain of one layer ran at right angles to those on either side. (Today’s plywood is a similar example of this method of lamination, intended to reduce shrinkage and increase strength.) Belter then steamed and molded the multilayered panels into the curved shapes he desired. The technique enabled him to create uncommonly strong chairs that could be carved with a delicacy of detail scarcely possible in solid wood.
Although Belter’s ornate work is stylistically the antithesis of the pareddown, streamlined furniture of the 1930s and 1940s, he demonstrated the versatility of laminated wood, pointing the way for Marcel Breuer and Charles Eames to mold plywood into free-form curves of extraordinary grace.
Belter’s business took off. He became the city’s most in-demand cabinetmaker since Duncan Phyfe. But his firm’s success was subverted by imitators, who must have set his remaining teeth on edge by knocking off simplified, inexpensive copies of his furniture. Shortly before Belter’s death in 1863, he destroyed most of his patterns and molds, perhaps to thwart the competition. His firm survived another four years before folding in 1867.
Belter’s posthumous reputation slid into a prolonged decline, but today a single Belter sofa or table may cost thousands, and many of his best pieces have been moved into museums. One hundred and twenty-five years is a long time to await the vindication of history, but Belter is at last secure in his niche as one of this nation’s most innovative craftsmen.