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Colonial Antique Furniture

Historical Furniture / October 30, 2023

The 18th-century American furniture exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a mini-feast of masterpieces in the sort of people-oriented presentation that collectors long to see in museums, but rarely do.

The 60 Queen Anne and Chippendale selections in provocative displays are from the Metropolitan's permanent collection, and were chosen by Morrison Heckscher, curator of American decorative arts. The works in the show - which can be seen through December in the American Wing - are described in detail in ''American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Late Colonial Period: Queen Anne and Chippendale Styles, '' written by Mr. Heckscher and published by the museum and Random House ($45). The handsomely illustrated, 383-page catalogue, which was aided by a grant from Linda and George M. Kaufman, collectors of American 18th-century furniture, is the first of three volumes that will cover the Metropolitan's holdings in American furniture.

What makes the exhibition and catalogue memorable is the realistic approach Mr. Heckscher chose in presenting some offbeat and some great examples of Colonial furniture from New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Newport. The selection was made so that we will better understand how and why chairs and chests were crafted and to help us recognize both the finest as well as the less successful furniture forms from the four major American cabinetmaking centers during this period.

Everyone who admires antique furniture wonders how a wing chair looks, warts and all, stripped of its upholstery. Now they may see a denuded New England example, shown for comparison alongside a splendid, fully upholstered Newport specimen, one of only two of these easy chairs extant that is still fitted with the original stuffing and covering fabric. Surprisingly, the bared New England easy chair retains all of its natural dignity because its robust sculptural form is fully exposed in this state of undress, revealing a frame riddled with nail holes and punctuated with splits and patches.

Another display includes a delightful bit of fakery - a maple chair with an ersatz mahogany finish. The show label and catalogue tell us that the Connecticut craftsman who carved this Queen Anne chair with a scalloped apron around 1720 chose to imitate mahogany in the painted finish. A coat of reddish paint was streaked with black to suggest mahogany, which was all the rage in New England in the early 18th century. Period pieces with such finishes are rarely found today in their original state, Mr. Heckscher pointed out.

In the same area is a Massachusetts Chippendale chair, its back carved in the shape of owl's eyes, that boasts its original worn and torn leather seat. That chair would lose much of its presence if its seat were repaired or replaced. Next to it stands a third example of period furniture with an original finish - a leather-covered cradle embellished with brass nails, a New York design from about 1762 that resembles the leather-covered traveling trunks of the period - and for good reason. They were made by the same craftsmen, according to Mr. Heckscher.

Those who think furniture became functional only a decade or so ago, or that all antique furniture was made without nails and screws, will be confounded, albeit delightfully, to see an outsized, late 18th-century Philadelphia sofa shown stripped of its fabric and filling. This scrolled-arm, camel-back piece is fitted with screws to ease disassembly as readily as in 20th-century knockdown furniture, and for the same reasons - to speed the passage through doorways and in long-distance transport.