Sat, Oct 6, 2018 10:00AM EDT
American (New York), ca 1850-1860. A rare and exceptional parlor suite attributed to John Henry Belter (1804-1863), composed of a triple back settee, a pair of meridiennes, and four side chairs, each having carved historical busts, a scrolled and pierced back, shaped seat, foliate apron, turned stop-fluted legs, casters, and later Napoleonic bee upholstery; sofa ht. 44, wd. 73.5, dp. 30 in., meridiennes ht. 38, wd. 42, dp. 24 in. (each).
In many ways, this suite is atypical of Belter's designs. Rather than the Louis XV-style cabriole legs more often found on Belter furniture, the suite features Louis XVI-style fluted legs and more dramatic scrolled backs. The side chairs have round seats rather than the more commonly seen serpentine-shaped seat. The subject matter is also very distinctive, featuring carved portrait busts of noted American political dignitaries and important European poets. The settee is adorned with carvings of the Founding Fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, the meridiennes feature the busts of English poets John Milton and William Shakespeare, and the side chairs feature portraits of poets Geoffrey Chaucer, Dante, Virgil, and Homer. The prominent inclusion of these luminaries is intentional and represents the ideals and character of Belter's adopted homeland. Belter immigrated from Germany in 1833 and became an American citizen in 1839. His choice to include American political figures in the same suite as that of some of history's most influential literary figures can be viewed as a declaration of his pride in the United States and its expanding role and relevance in international matters.
Art critic David Bourdon credited Belter with having transformed the influence of Louis XV-style and "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." Bourdon also noted that Belter developed a new process which allowed him to laminate and mold six to eight layers of rosewood, arranging them in a way that specifically increased their strength and made them resistant to shrinkage. He could then steam and mold the wood into his signature sinuous contours, and could also carve more highly detailed figures than would be possible when working with solid wood. The result was furniture that was extremely strong, with dramatic design and ornate details.
Bourdon, David. "The Belter Chair", American Heritage (v. 40, issue 2, March 1989).
Illustrated in Dubrow, Eilieen and Richard. American Furniture of the 19th Century, 1840-1888. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 1983, pp. 110-111.
Illustrated in Schwartz, Marvin. Edward Stanek, and Douglas True. The Furniture of John Henry Belter and the Rococo Revival. New York: Dutton, 1981, pp. 48, 49, 60, 66.