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A Federal Looking Glass

June 2024
2min read

It is noteworthy that every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home, just as we have images of God’s saints.” So wrote one visitor to the United States, Paul Svinin, soon after the turn of the nineteenth century. Indeed, iconic portraits of the strong-jawed, steady-eyed father of this country were ubiquitous during the Federal period, not only on canvas and paper but on teapots, clocks, silver medals, wooden snuffboxes, cotton handkerchiefs, and, as seen here, on glass.

Washington’s inaugural speech on the balcony of New York’s Federal Hall in April of 1789 heralded an era of intense nationalistic feeling, when the old colonial loyalties began to dissolve. England and the Continent remained reference points in matters of culture, taste, and style, but there was also the growing emergence of a distinctly American point of view.

The resumption of family life after the Revolutionary War, coupled with a new optimism and affluence, led to the building of larger houses that featured what had previously been rare—rooms specifically designated for purposes of dining and entertainment. This, in turn, created a demand for quantities of stylish furniture—a demand met, in part, by an influx of skilled craftsmen from abroad.

At this time walls were relatively bare. Perhaps only one or two looking glasses relieved the blank surfaces. Prominently positioned in parlors or dining rooms, such pieces served not only as decorative elements and grooming aids but as sources of illumination, reflecting candlelight back into a room. Ornate models were considered luxuries: in 1790 Abigail Adams wrote from New York requesting that her sister send from her Massachusetts home “the Glass I do not know how to do without,” adding that she couldn’t afford to replace it. Nevertheless, inventories dating from 1768 reveal that most colonial homes had at least one looking glass.

Abigail Adams’s glass had almost certainly come from Europe, but the nineteenth century brought a marked increase in American-made glasses. As styles became more refined, the pieces were increasingly fashioned by carvers, gilders, and framers rather than by cabinetmakers, although the glass itself was still often imported. By the turn of the century, numerous frame and looking-glass makers were active in well-advertised shops. In New York alone, where the example illustrated here was made, more than a hundred cabinetmakers, chairmakers, carvers, gilders, and joiners thrived.

As styles became more refined, looking glasses were often fashioned by carvers, gilders, and framers, rather than by cabinetmakers.

The looking glass shown opposite, which dates from around 1800, is representative of the Federal period in several respects. The reverse-painted glass panel was a popular decorative element at the time. The painting itself—achieved with a foil backing through a technique called verre églomis é—features a patriotic theme: the first President, set heroically against traditional emblems of war and surmounted by an American eagle, a symbol of independence even more widely used than Washington himself.

The overall design reflects one of the most influential movements of the period—the revival of classicism—which was manifested in everything from portraits of Washington in Roman robes, to Greek architecture in government buildings, to the columnar frames of looking glasses like this one. In Britain it started in the 176Os when the Adam brothers first incorporated classical ornament in their furniture design and emphasized linear relationships. By the time the Constitution was adopted in 1788, the neoclassic revolution was about to sweep this country. American cabinetmakers drew heavily on the classically inspired style books of George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton, using them as foundations for their own interpretations and elaborations.

The Federal style was a subdivision of neoclassicism and owed a great deal to the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the early eighteenth century. Antiquity became the rage on both sides of the Atlantic. For the new United States republic, democratic Athens and republican Rome provided models that were both political and stylistic.

The classical elements of this looking glass are typical of the tabernacle style of Federal glass, which was constructed with a rectangular frame and flanked by hollow colonnettes, each inset with a single twist and crowned with acanthus leaves. The top and bottom are incised with festoons, beneath a cornice molding hung with a row of balls. A more decorative type of looking glass was a girandole , a circular convex glass in a heavy gilt frame with candlesticks on either side. Sheraton defined this radical configuration as a “mirror—”the reason why, in case you have wondered, that term has been studiously avoided here.

Both styles are favorites of contemporary collectors. A looking glass made in Philadelphia in 1775 was recently sold at Christie’s for $242,000—a world auction record.

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