Mystery Chair – Late Classical or Nouveau?
Here’s an intriguing mystery chair for you which is in the middle of disagreement on it’s age. This isn’t a casual situation where a curious chair owner would like to know, but a case where the chair is being offered to a museum and two book authors disagree on the timeframe of it’s manufacture. Here are the two theories:
- The chair has been dated 1830-’50 by one book author and classified as Empire/Neo-Classical and separately by a big auction house appraiser as 1840-50 Neo-Classical/Victorian
- Another author of an upcoming book says it is from the Art Nouveau period and made 1890-1920
Some additional information provided by the owner, who has documentation that suggests that the chair is by Francois Seignouret:
From page 181, Three Centuries of American Furniture by Oscar P. Fitzgerald, (c) 1982 by Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N. J., pages 180-181. [Francois] Seignouret opened his shop in 1822 and sold furniture in the empoire and Rococco revival style until 1853, when he returned to France. There is a picture of an authenticated Seignouret chair on page 181 and you can see it is similar to my chair except for the klismos legs and rolled ends of the arms. If you use a magnifying glass in examining the splat you will see the same vertical grain veneer used on the front that you see on my chair. Someone called that effect “ribboned mahogany”.
Nobody has been able to definitely identify it as a Seignouret work, though [names removed] said it was in the style of Seignouret’s late works, 1830-’50. [Name removed] claims Seignouret left Louisiana in 1830 and most other sources say 1853. S/he says he was primarily an upholstery and furniture maker with a wine business on the side. Most other sources say he was a wealthy wine merchant importing wine from France to New Orleans and did woodworking as a hobby until 1830 when he hired an apprentice, built a woodworking shop attached to his 520 Royal Street mansion in New Orleans and began turning out a higher volume of armoires, highly decorated carved chairs that though fragile in appearance were very strong because of his unique method of construction.
Mrs. Eleanor Wickliffe Magee left this chair in the current owner’s family’s care in 1944 when they purchased her large home in Bogalusa, LA. She went to live in retirement at Wickland Plantation in Bardstown, KY, the ancestral home of her maternal Great Grandfather, Charles A. “The Duke” Wickliffe…. She stated to our family that her father, Union Army Captain John D. Wickliffe, took this chair from the governor’s office of the burning statehouse of Louisiana in 1862. (See Yankee looting of capitol, Times Picayune 01/19/1912 and general looting by Union troops, Macon Weekly Telegraph, September 26, 1862) She insisted on leaving it behind in her former home saying “it should stay in Louisiana, where it belongs.”
The gondole chair arm is one piece from the acanthus carvings on the gooseneck bend to the foot. The gondole side rails supporting the chair’s back is one piece with the rack holding the seat in the accepted design of Seignouret chairs. He incorporated these continuous pieces to give sturdiness to his seemingly fragile carved creations. (Les Auschitzky de Boureau, Un Bourdelais en Louisiane aux XIX sie’cle: FRANCOIS SEIGNOURET)
Seignouret, a New Orleans wine merchant who emigrated from France in 1808 and built his mansion at 520 Royal Street in 1816, made armoires, tables and seemingly fragile carved chairs as a hobby and is regarded today as one of the greatest woodworkers of his time. He always hid the initial “S” amid the carvings on his highly carved chairs and armoires according to his biographers.
The “S” hidden on the Wickliffe-Lawrence chair is among the acanthus leaves at center top of the lyre back. All the acanthus leaves are sharp or blunt, except one. That curved leaf, left side of the center stalk, contains clearly the letter “S”.
The padded seat’s upholstery was originally tacked on top of the seat rack with square tacks to expose more wood grain on the rack’s sides and front than you see now. It has cylindrical iron springs made by a blacksmith. Hammer marks are quite visible on all the springs. The 1969 restoration upholsterer used light, easy to remove staples on the sides to avoid disturbing the square tack holes of the previous and possible original leather covering that help date the piece.
I’m still working on my opinion, but my areas of focus are the following:
- Is the mahogany striping consistent with one or both of those periods?
- Do the dolphins and paw feet follow carving conventions of either period?
- Are the chair arms distinctive to either period?
- There are probably some construction clues that would date it (nails, joinery)
- Is the serpentine skirt more appropriate to one period or the other?
- What do the original iron springs tell us?
- Is that really an “S” or just a coincidental carving occurrence?
I find it interesting that the experts refer to the earlier period as “Neo-Classical”, which we all know ended around 1820 per the Rare Victorian Guide on the Classical Period. Something from the 1830s-1850s would be regarded as “Late Classical”. Maybe that is just a fine point lost in translation somewhere as information is passed along to me.
What are your thoughts? Was this chair made in the 1830s-1850s or closer to 1900? More photos below
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