Exploring the Art of Louisiana Furniture
Louisiana cabinetmakers under Napoleonic rule earned job titles as elite as ebeniste and doreur, building and gilding furniture for plantation owners. The artisans ranks included slaves, free men of color and immigrants from Germany and the Caribbean. But they developed a signature Louisiana style.
They inlaid blond swags and customers initials on cypress armoires and modeled sling-back mahogany porch chairs after thrones that Spanish conquistadors had brought to Mexico. On cherrywood bedsteads with tapered posts eight feet tall they attached iron rods for drapes of mosquito netting, essential during Louisiana summers.
The Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum and research center, has published the first major study of the woodworkers' products, Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735-1835. The main authors, the historians Jack D. Holden, H. Parrott Bacot and Cybele T. Gontar, took road trips to study objects in about 40 institutions and 80 private homes.
The topic had long been ignored, partly because of some Northern bias among decorative arts scholars. 'In 1949, Joseph Downs, then curator of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, infamously stated that 'little of artistic merit was made south of Baltimore,' ' John T. Magill, a curator at Historic New Orleans, writes in the book's introduction.
A decade ago, the Met at last acquired a piece of early 1800s Louisiana furniture: a mahogany armchair with checkerboard inlay that is now tucked into a shadowy corner of the American Wing's mezzanine.
The new study covers tables and chairs with elaborately flared and turned legs, and necessities as humble as corn-shuck brooms and painted wood washstands. The text explains how the pieces served their original owners. Ursuline nuns stored their meager possessions in boxy cypress dressers. An armchair with a Spanish Hapsburg eagle embossed on the leather was a favorite lounging spot for James Madison during his retirement in Virginia.
The artisans designed and reinforced their wares to endure 'the vicissitudes of hurricanes, floods, war and changes in fashion,' the authors write. An 1820s cypress armoire 'survived the great Mississippi River flood of 1927, leaving a distinct watermark more than halfway up the door panels.'
The book reports on provenances as well. In 2003, at Neal Auction Company in New Orleans, an 1810s mahogany armoire inlaid with ribbons and vines brought $140,000 (the presale estimate was $30,000 to $50,000). The piece, which had been displayed for decades at an 1820s plantation, was made by a prolific cabinetmaker whose name is not yet known. Scholars call him the Butterfly Man, because he joined wood slabs with pointy pegs that look like butterfly wings.
Next year, Historic New Orleans will organize an exhibition and an online database of Louisiana furniture. The show will probably not travel, said Jessica Dorman, the center s director of publications, given the unwieldy size and heft of the antiques and the reluctance of owners to part with them for long.
--Eve M. Kahn, December 9, 2010 --The New York Times
About the Author
H. Parrott Bacot, professor emeritus of art history at Louisiana State University, served as the curator/director of the university s art museum for thirty-three years. There he amassed significant collections of Louisiana fine and decorative arts. He has authored or coauthored numerous exhibition catalogues, articles for learned journals, and three books. Bacot has lectured at a majority of the antiques forums in America, including those of Colonial Williamsburg and the Henry Ford Museum. He has served as an interiors consultant for a number of public and private historic houses.
Brian J. Costello, an eleventh-generation Louisianian, is a graduate of Louisiana State University in history and English. He is the author of nineteen books and has participated in several documentaries and forums on Louisiana history, culture, genealogy, linguistics, Carnival, and flood control. He is the founding and current archivist of the Pointe Coupee Parish Library Historical Materials Collection.
Sarah Doerries earned an MFA in poetry at Louisiana State University, where she was editorial assistant at the Southern Review. She was an assistant dean and taught creative writing at Tulane University before becoming books editor at The Historic New Orleans Collection. Her poetry and reviews have been published in several literary magazines.
Jessica Dorman is director of publications at The Historic New Orleans Collection. She earned her PhD in the history of American Civilization from Harvard University and has taught American Studies at Trinity College (Hartford) and Penn State Harrisburg.
Cybele Trione Gontar is adjunct professor of art history at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. A PhD candidate in American art at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and a graduate of the Parsons/Cooper-Hewitt master s degree program in the history of decorative arts, she is a contributing author to the New Orleans Museum of Art collection handbook and has published numerous articles on nineteenth-century decorative and fine arts. Jack D. Holden, M.D., is a retired pathologist and collector of Louisiana material culture. He graduated from Louisiana State University medical school. Dr. Holden has published several articles on Louisiana furniture and architecture and was a primary participant in the 1976 bicentennial exhibition of Louisiana furniture in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Francis J. Puig, born in Cuba, immigrated to the United States in 1960. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, from which he also received an MA in museum curatorship, Puig attended Yale for graduate work in American Studies. He was curator of decorative arts at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and organized the 1989 exhibition The American Craftsman and the European Tradition, 1620 1820. More recently he was responsible for restoration plans for the CÃÂ d Zan, John and Mable Ringling s home in Sarasota, Florida.
The Historic New Orleans Collection is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to the study and preservation of the history and culture of New Orleans, the lower Mississippi Valley, and Gulf South. The Collection is operated by the Kemper and Leila Williams Foundation, a Louisiana nonprofit corporation.