WASHINGTON, D.C. — It is not often that the gift of a private collection has a transformative effect on a major museum, but that is the case with the National Gallery of Art (NGA), where the Kaufman collection of American furniture has recently been installed. Assembled over five decades by the late George M. Kaufman and his wife, Linda H. Kaufman, it is one of the largest and most refined troves of early American furniture formerly in private hands. It not only fills a void in the National Gallery’s expansive collections, but is the first major presentation of early American furniture and related decorative arts on permanent public view in the nation’s capital.
Native Virginians, the Kaufmans began collecting in the late 1950s, recognizing early on the aesthetic as well as historic importance of fine American furniture. Visits to the impressive collections at Winterthur, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Art Gallery shaped their knowledge and passion for the finest work of artisans working in major colonial and post-revolutionary urban centers. Their trove includes numerous examples of the most creative and costliest furniture available in Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century America. Many objects were purchased from famed Manhattan antiques dealer Israel Stack, and other pieces were acquired at auctions in New York City.
“We always liked the more sophisticated pieces,” says Linda Kaufman. “I’m not a very folksy person.”
Ms Kaufman is the daughter of wealthy Virginia philanthropists and the widow of an entrepreneur who founded the Guest Quarters hotel chain. The Kaufmans’ philanthropy has also supported a wide range of other good causes.
“This unparalleled gift,” says Earl A. Powell, director of the NGA, “dramatically amplifies the great American achievements in painting and sculpture long represented at the gallery, while also transforming our collection of decorative arts by augmenting its fine holdings of European decorative arts with equally important American examples.”
“Masterpieces of American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection, 1700–1830,” a permanent installation, highlights more than 100 of the 200 donated works, including splendid examples of early American furniture and decorative objects, along with a selection of American, European and Chinese porcelains. Paintings from the gallery’s permanent collection are integrated into the presentation. Guest curator for the installation is eminent furniture authority Wendy Cooper, the Lois F. and Henry S. McNeil senior curator of furniture at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library.
Entering the first gallery, visitors are greeted by a monumental mahogany desk and bookcase (1765–1770), an important example of high quality Eighteenth Century Philadelphia furniture, inspired by the example of Britain’s Thomas Chippendale. Its finial bust is a carved mahogany depiction of British political activist and historian Catharine Macaulay. Flanking the desk/bookcase are two side chairs commissioned in 1770–1771 for the Philadelphia townhouse of the Cadwalader family. They “reflect English design but are wholly American in interpretation and superlative in execution,” says Cooper. This first room also showcases two of the collection’s earliest pieces, both made in Boston, a rare William and Mary japanned dressing table (1700–1725) and a brilliantly veneered high chest (1730–1760) with gilt shells and broken scroll pediment.
The second room, highlighting the rococo or Chippendale style, popular in America 1745–1780, revolves around three rare tea tables at its center, exemplifying the distinctive regional artistry of craftsmen in Philadelphia (attributed to Nicholas Bernard and Martin Jugiez), Newport, R.I. (attributed to John Townsend), and Williamsburg, Va. Another regional contrast is evident in high chests from Philadelphia and Newport, which face each other on opposing sides of the room.
The eye-popper here is a blockfront chest on chest (1775–1785) made for the wealthy Providence, R.I., merchant John Brown, an ancestor of former NGA director J. Carter Brown. Its distinctly Rhode Island block and shell design and “its highly figured mahogany and boldly sculpted shells signal the wealth and status of the Brown family,” Cooper observes.
The third room demonstrates dramatic changes in styles during the Federal period soon after the American Revolution, characterized by light and linear shapes, new forms like large dining tables and sideboards, shimmering veneers and inlays rather than carved rococo foliate ornament. Two examples made in Boston by English émigré craftsmen John and Thomas Seymour, a new-style tambour desk and a delicately fashioned card or gaming table suitable for playing backgammon and chess, contrast with a stately desk and bookcase (1755–1765) and satinwood veneered table (1807) made in Philadelphia by Robert McGuffin.
The highlight of the room is an exuberant, brilliantly veneered mahogany sideboard, inlaid with drapery swags, ovals, urns and bellflowers, made by New York cabinetmakers William Mills and Simeon Deming in the late 1790s. It was commissioned by Oliver Wolcott, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and governor of Connecticut.
Also noteworthy are contrasting clothes presses from Charleston and New York, and a pair of rare French porcelain vases with portraits of George Washington and John Adams, displayed along with portraits of Washington and Adams by Gilbert Stuart.
The final room celebrates the late classical or Empire style popularized by Napoleon Bonaparte, featuring objects made between 1810 and 1830 that reflect ancient Greek and Roman influences with strong archeological references.
The focal point here is a spectacular, colorful marble-top center table made by French émigré Philadelphia cabinetmaker Anthony Quervelle. “Inspired by tables depicted in Roman frescoes and mosaics, center tables with great paw feet and multistone tops imported from Italy were the ultimate in high-style Empire fashion,” observes Cooper. Pronouncing the table “fabulous,” Cooper adds, “The bold scrolled legs with massive paw feet, carved acanthus leaves and trailing grapevines are characteristic of Quervelle’s finest work.”
Other notable Empire-style pieces include chairs that imitated Grecian klismos versions and a side chair, 1815–1820, attributed to Duncan Phyfe. “Grecian style was ubiquitous,” notes Cooper, “as ladies wore dresses inspired by classical Greek styles while reclining on ‘Grecian’ couches with scrolled ends.” A spectacular example of the latter, dating to 1810–1830 in Baltimore, has golden upholstery setting off its asymmetrical profile, one end being higher than the other. “Recalling more expensive materials,” Cooper points out, “the frame of this Grecian couch is ‘grained’ to resemble costly rosewood and painted in imitations of more lavish ormolu —mercury-gilded brass.” This Grecian couch is a rarity, having been bought in Washington, rather than New York.
In a felicitous touch, the fine examples of American decorative arts in the Kaufman collection are complemented by outstanding American paintings from the NGA’s own trove. Featuring portraits, the predominant subject matter in colonial and Federal American art, the painters include Stuart, John Singleton Copley, John Wollaston, John Trumbull, Jacob Eichholtz, Ralph Earl, Rembrandt Peale and Thomas Sully.
Both educational, revelatory and just plain appealing to the eye, the Kaufman collection presents a compendium of American artistic talent over more than a century of history. The nation should be grateful for the keen eye, passion for excellence and sense of connoisseurship of the Kaufmans, who in bequeathing this priceless trove to the National Gallery have immeasurably augmented its holdings. As guest curator Cooper concludes, “The depth, variety and superior quality of this furniture offer a glimpse at a social, fashion-conscious society in America.”
The accompanying free brochure, written by Cooper, is fully illustrated and loaded with perceptive insights into styles and individual pieces in the Kaufman collection. The National Gallery of Art is on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW. For information, www.nga.gov or 202-737-4215.