This Empire center table (36.160) featuring a painted tondo (circular composition) on its top is one of the highlights of the Museum of the City of New York’s furniture collection. It is not only the epitome of the best work of the cabinetmakers and craftsmen who made it but also embodies political themes and the ideology of a new nation. The center table was donated to the Museum in 1936, alongside other property of several descendants of merchant Stephen C. Whitney (1776-1860) to form the Whitney Period alcove, which contained examples of furniture from his home at 7 Bowling Green. Many of these objects were installed in the alcove as part of “Furnishing the Empire City, 1700-1906,” from 1936 until November 2012. The de-installation of this space allowed for high-resolution photography and closer study of the objects that had been featured in this gallery.
The center table represents the highest-quality New York City furniture from the Empire period (1810-1840). While simple in form, its circular table top on tripod pedestal makes use of fine cut-brass inlay, exquisite woodwork in the luxurious rosewood veneer over secondary woods–white pine and mahogany, painted scagiola, and freehand and stenciled gilded decoration. These features embody the best craftsmanship found in the city in the early nineteenth century, which was then an important center of cabinetmaking. The boldly-reeded central columns ebonized with gilded highlights, heavy acanthus-leaf band at the column base, and verd antique (a coating meant to imitate the look of patinated bronze) on the gilded pedestal and paw feet illustrate the classical vocabulary popular in the period. An examination of these details supports the attribution of this piece to the workshop of Duncan Phyfe (1770-1864). Phyfe was one of the preeminent cabinetmakers in New York City, alongside contemporaries such as Charles-Honoré Lannuier (1779-1819). Both cabinetmakers immigrated to New York City from Europe: Phyfe was born in Scotland and Lannuier in Chantilly, France, and both brought styles and training from Europe to New York City where they were adapted to the New York City market. The strongest evidence for the attribution to Phyfe is found in a center table documented in 1822 as made in the Phyfe shop now in the collection at Winterthur Museum (1957.944). The form of the Winterthur table, particularly the shape of the foot and its verd antique paw feet, are nearly identical to those on the MCNY center table. The painted tondo acts as a centerpiece to the table, and while rare, this device is found on contemporary center tables, such as one attributed to John Finlay of Baltimore in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art (88.24).
Whitney family history suggests the center table was used in the drawing room of Stephen Whitney’s house at 7 Bowling Green. Construction on the three-story Whitney townhouse at 7 Bowling Green began in 1825. It was located at the corner of State Street and Bowling Green, the current site of what was the Customs House and is now the National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian Institution. The townhouse was demolished in the early twentieth century and its contents were dispersed among Whitney’s descendants. While no documentation exists on the furnishing of Whitney’s home, family history indicates he commissioned a suite of furniture from the workshop of Duncan Phyfe in 1827, around the time he moved in. While this table is not thought to be part of this suite (also held in the City Museum’s collection, 36.110.1-.5), it is attributed to Phyfe on the basis of its formal and decorative characteristics.
The table was donated by Mrs. Egerton L. Winthrop, a great-granddaughter of Whitney, descending through his son, Henry Whitney (1812-1856), and granddaughter, Cornelia Lawrence Whitney (1839-1908). Located in Whitney’s drawing room, the center table was used to serve visitors tea, water or spirits. Used in such a room visited by members of the public, albeit invited guests, the table’s form and decoration have a programmatic function. Its classical vocabulary and allegorical tondo express American democratic ideas through references to the classical period, evoking themes of liberty, simplicity and dignity associated with Athens and the Roman Republic. During the first decades of the nineteenth century, Americans were receptive to the idea that knowledge and imitation of classical laws, customs, and aesthetics fostered these principles. The classical characteristics and underlying allegories of this table’s form and decoration were immediately recognizable to the contemporary eye.
The tondo on the table top is painted with the penultimate scene from the legend of Roman patriot Mettius Curtius, who sacrificed himself to close a vast chasm in the Roman forum, saving its civilization. As told by Livy, the chasm appeared in the forum and could not be filled by citizens’ votive offerings. Oracles dictated that the chasm could only be filled by “the most precious thing of all.” Mettius Curtius declared that the most precious thing in Rome was the courage and strength of its soldiers, and offered himself to the opening, boldly striding into the large hole, which closed behind him. This was interpreted as an act of sacrifice for the greater good of society. While Whitney’s conspicuous display of his considerable wealth, as evidenced in his richly-decorated townhouse, may seem incompatible with ideals of democracy, his career and status resulted from a post-aristocratic political system. The structure of a society governed by a monarch and primogeniture resulted in a system in which the most rich and powerful were of the royal class and wealth was gained from inheritance and spoils of war. The rise of the mercantile class and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the political structure of the United States challenged this notion, as a working class of merchant-traders was able to gain wealth far greater than that obtained or contained within the aristocratic class. Self-made businessmen were therefore proof that a democratic system and government based on a constitutional democracy could result in a greater dispersal of wealth among classes and opportunity for social mobility. Whitney, born into a middle-class Connecticut family, worked his way up within the merchant class from an employee in his brother’s grocery and import business to found his own firm, ultimately controlling much of the United States’ cotton export before moving into other commodities. Upon his death, his wealth was considered to rival only that of the Astors’ in the New York City area.
Before its inclusion in “Duncan Phyfe, Master Cabinetmaker in New York,” organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2011-2012, the table underwent significant conservation, made possible by a generous grant from the Campana Foundation. Notably, work by conservator Carloyn Tomkiewicz revealed that the tondo was painted on true fresco rather than on a dried section of plaster. True fresco is painted on wet plaster and pigment is applied as the surface dries, resulting in a bolder palette of colors and greater depth in the quality of the painting than if painted on dried plaster. It was also a more skillful method of decorating and required greater expense to accomplish. Fine Wood Conservation, Ltd. conserved the table. In its restored state, the grandeur of the table as it appeared around 1827 is apparent.
*Special thanks to Peter M. Kenny and James W. Tottis for information included in this posting.