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The Dolphin Sofa

June 2024
3min read

The elegant sofa curving across these pages is a superb embodiment of the classical-revival movement that took he young republic by storm in the early nineteenth century. Although its maker is unknown, the workmanship strongly suggests that it was produced in New York City about 1820. As well as being the summit of the cabinetmaker’s art, this sofa, with its lavish combination of woods, metals, and fabric, confirms the emergence of New York as a center of fashion and luxury. Put more bluntly, this extravagant object brilliantly exemplifies the drop-dead, second-to-none stylishness that has always gone over big in New York.

Unlike Boston, Newport, or Philadelphia, which shone during the colonial period, New York did not reveal its promise as a great city until the waning years of the eighteenth century. Between 1785 and 1790 New York was the j first capital of the new United States. The experiment was brief, but it brought prosperity and importance to the city, as well as an influx of artisans ready to serve an expanding merchant class. Within a few years of each other, two immigrants—Duncan Phyfe of Scotland and Charles-Honoré Lannuier of France—settled in Manhattan and became the leading cabinet-makers of their time. By 1805 the editor of a New York City directory felt justified in proclaiming that the local furniture equaled, “in point of elegance, any ever imported from Europe, and is scarcely equaled in any other city in America.” New York’s reputation as a trend setter was beginning an ascendancy that would last to this day.

Among the costliest items in a furniture maker’s inventory was the sofa. Although settees had been made as early as the seventeenth century, they remained rarities in eighteenth-century America, and as late as 1820 only the wealthiest households could afford them. This example, with its carving, inlaying, gilding, shaping, stuffing, sewing, framing, and joining, would have taken at least a month of skilled labor to finish

Concurrent with the upsurge of New York as a center of commerce came the classical revival, which lasted roughly from 1795 to 1830. Inspired by the excavations of ruins in Greece and Rome, French artisans developed the Empire style, which also glorified Napoleon by linking postrevolutionary France to the Caesars and their conquests. In England a similar style arose, but the John Bull version was called Regency, in acknowledgment of the prince regent, Britain’s most prominent patron of the arts and the future George IV. Both these strains of classicism were transmitted here through illustrated books, actual pieces of imported furniture, foreignborn craftsmen like Phyfe and Lannuier, and Americans who had been abroad. The most influential tastemaker of his time, Thomas Jefferson, avidly propagated the vogue for the antique. For instance, in 1789, following his tenure as minister to France, he brought eighty-six crates of art and furniture home from Paris to Monticello, and he based his design for the state capitol in Richmond on a model of a Roman temple he’d seen in France. Like the French, Jefferson was conscious of the parallels that could be drawn between the heroic deeds of antiquity and the aspirations of his fledgling country. The calm, authoritative grace of the neoclassical style seemed appropriate for a people who had survived an enormous social upheaval and were embracing a complex destiny. The author of the Declaration of Independence was among the first to see that although Americans had freed themselves politically, they were not ready for artistic independence from Europe.

This extravagant object brilliantly exemplifies the drop-dead, second-to-none stylishness that has always gone over big in New York.

Indeed, Americans continued to refer to French and English precedent. The fashionable cabinetmaker who produced this sofa found the form for it in a London price book of 1802. The long, seductive curves that beckoned sitters to drape themselves across the cushions may be traced to an idiom that originated elsewhere, but in ornament and ingenuity the interpretation was his own. The maker exploited the rich textural contrasts and interplays of materials; the body is constructed not only of mahogany but of ash, maple, and pine. The wood is embellished not only with brass but with gilt and verdigris.

Experts identify this sofa as a New York adaptation of American Empire through certain details that have been proven to be regional contributions. The wooden crest rail, which was left plain in other cities, spirals into a brass rosette. An even more arresting hallmark of New York workmanship is the use of curlicuing dolphins to form the scrolled arms and feet. The dolphin had become a standard motif in the Empire vocabulary here and abroad, and ordinarily it functioned as an upright support on the sides of mirrors and tables. In Greek Revival sofas produced in New York, dolphins are incorporated in a livelier manner. They are carved in a full twist—in this case they are sinuously entwined with gilded acanthus sprays running across the base—so that the entire piece of furniture rests on the dolphins’ heads. According to a nineteenth-century handbook, the dolphin ( delphis ) came to symbolize the fertile female because of the assonance between it and delphys , the Greek word for “womb.” Was the customer aware of this little gloss, this additional quiver of sensuality tied up with reclining? The effect and the allusion would have been too audacious for Philadelphia or Boston, but for New York they were just fine.

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