s a graduate student at the Winterthur Museum Program in Early American Culture, I was privileged to work with the country’s premiere collection of American furniture, including the best examples of the styles most popular with cabinetmakers today—Queen Anne and Chippendale. Even in this setting, though,
I was always drawn to the neoclassical pieces of the later Federal and Empire eras. As curator of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore 17 years later, I am still studying and writing about those wonderful pieces that I found so appealing.
The Federal era in America began with independence from England. This political change also ushered in a new period in the arts. The Federal style represented an esthetic revolution over the popular Chippendale and Rococo styles. The prominent features of the earlier periods—florid, naturalistic carving, asymmetry in ornament, and architectural massiveness in case furniture—were all derived from a hodgepodge of historical and contemporary sources. Federal furniture replaced these artistic excesses with a clean, linear style that looked back to just one source of inspiration—Ancient Classicism.
The great neoclassical architect/interior designer Robert Adam introduced the new style to the English gentry, and furniture designers George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton published highly influential books that popularized its ancient Greek and Roman decorative motifs.
In the United States, this new style—sometimes also referred to as “Hepplewhite” or “Sheraton”—was the height of fashion by the mid-1790s. Although each metropolitan area developed its own distinctive form of Federal style, there were certain basic characteristics that defined it. The pieces in general are light and delicate, with attenuated elements such as tapered legs. Surface are flat and linear, relying on geometric patterns of veneer and banding in contrasting woods to achieve the main esthetic effects. Ornamentation is primarily inlaid and patterned stringing and pictorial motifs. Decorative elements are derived from ancient classical sources: columns, shells, urns, swags, leaves and vines, with one distinctively American motif: the patriotic eagle, symbol of the new nation.
By about 1810, Federal style began to evolve into Fate Neoclassical or Empire taste, which was even more closely inspired by archaeological discoveries. Actual pieces of ancient furniture such as “klismos” chairs, banqueting couches, and tripod stands were reproduced by cabinetmakers. Not until the 1840s and the advent of romantic Victorian revival styles was the taste for the Classical superseded in the American home.
Gregory Weidman is Curator of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, home of America’s largest collection of Federal furniture.
Norm Vandal explains