Monday, July 9, 2012

Klismos-Form Chairs

Fig. 1  Stele (grave marker) of a man,
c.375-350 B.C., Greek, marble.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York, NY
In the eighteenth century, a renewed interest in classical antiquity was spurred by the discovery and subsequent excavation of the ancient Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii.  Shortly afterwards Greek cities such as Athens and Palmyra also became the focus of archaeological investigations.  The new information yielded by these archaeological studies inspired a full-scale revival of ancient Greek and Roman art and architecture.  The new fashion, described as Neoclassicism, dominated English and French architecture, interior decoration, furniture and other decorative arts from the late eighteenth through the early nineteenth centuries. 

Fig. 2  Side chair, attributed to 
Samuel McIntire (1757-1811),
1794-1799, Salem, Massachusetts.
Mahogany. The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York, NY
The Neoclassical style appeared in the United States shortly after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.  Its adoption coincided with the forming of the new American government, a period described as the Federal years.  The style was deemed appropriate for the fledgling nation because of its associations with the democratic ideals of ancient Greece and the republican virtues of early Rome.

Between 1790 and 1810, American furniture featured the straight lines, geometric shapes and classical decoration associated with the Neoclassical style (figs. 2 & 3).  In the opening years of the nineteenth century, Neoclassicism entered an archaeological phase, when designers and cabinetmakers copied the forms of ancient Greek and Roman furniture.  Archaeological prototypes dominated American furniture design into the 1830s.

Fig. 3  Sideboard, c.1790, New York City, New York. Mahogany.
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY

One such antique model was the klismos, a distinctive type of chair used in ancient Greece (fig. 1).  The klismos chair stood on deeply curved legs, described as “saber” due to their similarity to the sword of the same name.  A deep crest rail that curved to accommodate the back of the sitter surmounted the outswept support, both of which echoed the curves of the saber legs.

Fig. 5  Scroll-back side chair, 1810-1820,
New York City, New York. Mahogany.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New
York, NY
Fig. 4  Tablet-back side chair, attributed to John
and Hugh Finlay (active 1800-1833), 1815-1820,

Baltimore, Maryland. Maple with painted
decoration. The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York, NY
The Greek klismos was the most popular archaeological model for chairs made in the Unites States between about 1810 and 1830.  American Neoclassical chairs of klismos form stand on downswept saber legs that frequently terminate in carved lion's paw feet.  The stiles, or vertical supports, elegantly curve out from the sides of the seat and rise to a crest rail, which either scrolls toward the back or takes on the form of a rectangular tablet. Depending on the shape of the crest, the chair is identified as either tablet-back (fig. 4) or scroll back (fig. 5)  The backs of chairs with scrolled crest rails feature a splat in the form of a lyre or harp, curved or straight cross bars (fig. 6) or a center rail comprised of a tablet flanked by acanthus leaves.  Motifs commonly found in the carved decoration on scrolled crest rails include cornucopias, ribbon-tied reeds and strands of wheat.  Legs, stiles and seat rails are typically decorated with reeding.

Fig. 6  Scroll-back side chair, attributed to Duncan
Phyfe (1770-1854), 1810-1815, New York City, New
York. Mahogany. The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York, NY

Klismos-form chairs were made in a variety of woods including mahogany, rosewood and maple.   Some examples feature painted and/or gilt decoration on a red or black ground (fig. 7).

The American taste for archaeologically inspired furniture coincided with the emergence and dissemination of the Greek Revival style in architecture and interior decoration.  A thoroughly "Grecian" interior featured decoration of Greek Ionic or Corinthian columns, pilasters, architraves and a full entablature, complemented by furniture based on archaeological models, including klismos-form chairs (fig. 8).

Fig. 7  Tablet-back side chair, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (American, 1764-1820), c.1808, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Yellow poplar, oak, maple and white pine with painted and gilt decorationHigh Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA

Fig. 8  Design for double parlors, Alexander Jackson Davis (American, 1803-1892), c.1830. Watercolor on paper. The New-York Historical Society, New York, NY

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