American Furniture at the MFA

I’ve been gearing up for my trip to Virginia next week, and today I thought I’d share with you some eye candy from another east coast pilgrimage of mine. Last summer I was in Boston for the first time since the opening of the new Art of the Americas wing in the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), and it left quite an impression. Here are some furniture highlights for your enjoyment.

I really liked the new layout of the galleries—most of them are set up in a sort of cross between the “period room” and the standard “furniture against a white wall with labels” approach. In this new cohesive presentation, paintings, furniture, and decorative arts are showcased together. The galleries are sparse enough to allow consideration of each piece individually without it getting lost in a fully furnished period room. Yet at the same time, you get a sense of context for each piece as it relates to other period items. The collections are organized by time period of course, but also by geographical origin. In my opinion, this emphasis on regional differences in 18th century American furniture was one of the strengths of the MFA’s new approach.

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This display in the Revolutionary Boston gallery presents a classic Queen Anne side chair in walnut, Peter Faneuil’s (of Faneuil Hall!) card table with its original needlework top, a japanned highboy, and a family portrait by John Greenwood. That wallpaper is too busy for my taste—it reminds me of a 1960s floral number still holding fast to the walls at my grandparents’ house—but it disabuses the viewer of the common belief that 18th century décor was universally austere.

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My jaw dropped when I saw this outrageous turret-top tea table in the same gallery. It’s a beautiful example of how American furniture emphasizes form and shape over decoration. I wish I lived close enough to pop in to this upcoming lecture on a similar table at Historic Deerfield!

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And here are three masterpieces in the jaw-dropping Newport gallery. Newport, Rhode Island, was a major 18th century furniture center. And the best of the best in that city was made by two interconnected families of cabinetmakers: the Townsends and the Goddards. They were arguably the best cabinetmakers in all of America, for that matter. Both the design and the execution of their pieces are absolutely perfect, as well as being uniquely American. Sadly, the breathtaking super-dense San Domingo mahogany wood they used simply does not exist anymore. You must see these in person!

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An exhibit featuring New York furniture included an always-fun roundabout or corner chair, a stately chest-on-chest, and a marble-top table. Marble-top tables were useful for serving beverages, since alcohol, heat, and even water could damage the finish on wood tabletops.  On the walls are charming portraits by John Wollaston of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Dongan, as well as a clean, solid color paint job that is more to my taste than the wallpaper in the Boston room! I am not sure if this is meant as a commentary on a difference in New York style preference though—does anybody know?

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The emphasis in these galleries on regional differences was perhaps best highlighted in an exhibit comparing side chairs from different areas in a similar time period. Here, from left to right, are chairs from London, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Portsmouth, and Connecticut (I believe the two on the end were from South America but I can’t remember). Text below each chair pointed out design and/or construction characteristics of each particular region. Very useful if you’re training to be an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow as I mentioned earlier!

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I was also very impressed by an educational exhibit highlighting construction techniques, including this awesome highboy demonstration, with drawers removed and displayed for closer inspection of both the case construction and the drawers themselves.

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A little further along, in the Federal furniture section, are the restored and reinstalled Oak Hill rooms, taken from a Massachusetts house completed in 1801 by architect, craftsman, and carver Samuel McIntire. These popular MFA period rooms feature many of the house’s stunning original furnishings.

The sole disappointing part about this visit was the lack of a new American furniture book/catalog to go along with the new galleries (they did release a more general book on the Art of the Americas). The existing volume on furniture at the MFA, published in 1965, would likely benefit from an update with the latest scholarship—not to mention full-color pictures. I can only hope that they are working on such a thing as we speak!

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