The Benjamin Altman Collection of Furniture

THE thirty-nine pieces of furniture included in the Altman bequest represent a period of manufacture extending over little more than the hundred years between the third quarter of the sixteenth century and the end of the seventeenth, a time which saw the last fruition of the Renaissance and the transition through the style of decoration known as the Baroque toward that called the Rococo. I t was an age marked by the use of richly carved walnut wood, and each of the various examples of cabinet-making now owned by the Museum exhibits in a high degree the skill of hand which characterized the woodworkers of the period and that fondness for rich ornament and elaboration of finish which is apparent in every artistic product of the time. The pieces are practically all French and English and offer visible evidence that the decorative impulse of the Renaissance had, in the lesser arts as well as the greater, passed from Italy in the south to the more northern nations, who renewed the old motives with fresh vigor and finally transformed them into a new and characteristic expression of national temperament.

With the exception of three Italian chairs, Nos. 100, 101, and 103, all the earlier specimens among the Altman furniture are French and highly typical of the last phase of the French Renaissance. The two cabinets, Nos. 99 and 102, and the three tables, Nos. 105, 106, and 107, form a remarkable group of furniture of this type, which combines a plethora of familiar decorative themes derived from Italian sources with a northern crispness and opulence of execution. Such furniture, where sphinxes, griffins, terminal and grotesque figures, carved in bold relief or in the full round, play the leading part in the ornamentation, is thought to have been made by the “Burgundian” or southeastern school of French carvers, principally at Dijon, where the fountain head of the style was Hugues Sambin, a designer and architect who published a book of engravings illustrative of furniture in the year 1572, thereby giving his name to the fashion in furniture which grew out of his designs. The table, No. 107, is a particularly fine example of the school although the top is a modern restoration, while the cabinet, No. 102, is unusual in having painted ornament in addition to that carved in low, middle, and high relief. A third cabinet, No. 104, at the south end of GALLERY 5, reflects another contemporary fashion in furniture, that of Paris or the Ile de France, where a rival to the Burgundian mode flourished in the later part of the sixteenth century. The leaders of this second school were three members of the du Circeau family, all accomplished architects, who were employed on the Tuilleries and the Louvre and who in their designs for furniture preferred architectural motives to flamboyant grotesques, infusing into their work a delicate refinement of line and ornament not found in the Burgundian productions. The pieces of furniture already mentioned are typical of the sumptuous tastes of the court which under Catherine de Medici and her sons persecuted the Huguenots and built Chenonceau, Fontainebleau, and other famous chateaux of France. Such furniture is the French equivalent of the Elizabethan cabinet work of England.

In the center of this gallery stand three chairs, Nos. 109, 110, 111, a century later in date than the pieces already mentioned. They are representative examples of the furnishings of Louis the Fourteenth’s time, and their dignified lines, gilded frames, and especially the pattern of the finely woven tapestry with which they are covered are in the manner of Berain, court designer to the Grand Monarque and indissolubly connected with the artistic phases of the reign. These tapestry backs and seats, together with that covering the sofa, No. 113, in GALLERY 4, were made at the royal manufactory at Beauvais, about 168o, and illustrate the best output of that well-known institution. The cipher monogram woven into the chair-backs is “P. C.,” repeated and reversed, a circumstance which bears out the statement that this upholstery was formerly the property of that Prince de Condé and Duc de Bourbon who built Chantilly and left behind him one of the most illustrious names in French history. The sofa shows a design of apes playing with the colored wools and spindles used in the weaving of tapestry, such creatures being popular with designers of the day who were fond of creating singeries of many sorts. In the center of the seat is a monogram of the interlaced L, the cipher of Louis the Fourteenth, surmounted by the crown, an evidence that this tapestry was woven for one of the royal palaces.

The table grouped with the chairs in the center of GALLERY 5 is some thirty years later than they, and is typical of the style and taste of the Regency, when the use of gilded bronze or ormolu mounts applied to wood was a favorite decorative method.

Around the walls of this room are placed seven English chairs of the late seventeenth century. The finely carved pair, Nos. 114 and 115, date from early in the reign of William and Mary, who ruled England from 1688 to 1702, while the five remaining chairs, Nos. 116-120, are a few years later, although probably made under the same sovereigns. With their cane backs and seats and the sharply foliated carving of their walnut frames, these chairs show the transmutation which the contemporary fashions of the French court under Louis the Fourteenth had undergone in their passage across the Channel by way of the Netherlands. The carving on the set of six is especially typical in a small way of a time when Grinling Gibbons and his school were carrying out with dazzling success precisely the same sort of ornament on a larger scale in mansions over the whole of England.