Published: October 16, 2007
An unassuming son of Salem known to have ventured only as far afield as Boston and Newburyport, and then only on occasion, set a standard for order and elegance in the American Federal period that endures to this day. Trained as a housewright and a self-taught practitioner of architecture, woodcarving and interior design, Samuel McIntire’s talents were so profound that his work became emblematic of the new republic.
The exhibition “Samuel McIntire, Carving an American Style,” on view at the Peabody Essex Museum, celebrates the 250th anniversary of his birth and explores the genius of the man as carver.
McIntire came of age in the town with the highest per capita income in the new nation. Salem was the only US port not blockaded by the British during the Revolution; its ships remained free to trade abroad and they brought home a stunning prosperity. Its merchants were eager to express their new affluence and McIntire was decidedly the right man at the right time.
It is most likely that McIntire learned his trade from his father, Joseph, a Salem joiner. It was carving, however, that appealed to him and for which he exhibited a prodigious talent. He studied with local artisans and made diligent study of classical architectural drawings, and of the books of the masters Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite, and of other English and French pattern books. He absorbed and made use of mathematical formulae to determine the correct proportions of the furniture and buildings he decorated. His studies served him well: he is said to have reinterpreted the neoclassical, or Adamesque, as a purely American genre.
The convergence of his artistry with the arrival of the pattern books and drawings from Europe and the stunning wealth of Salem ship owners and their consequent cultural awakening set the stage for the more than 50 peerless private homes and public buildings he designed that are recognized McIntire masterpieces today.
As the arbiter of taste in Federal Salem, McIntire’s architectural designs and carvings were much in demand. Working with the cabinetmakers of the day, he transformed the town. Salem and Boston were filled with fine cabinetmakers. The newly affluent townspeople wanted houses and furnishings to reflect their station. McIntire was the man. He would meet with the client to present designs, work up a pattern and present it to the cabinetmaker, who would produce a rough cut object that McIntire would then carve. Pieces then moved in parts or in their entirety to the finisher and ultimately to the upholsterer. It was not a rapid process.
McIntire’s furniture and woodwork are distinguished for the exquisite carved sheaves of wheat, cornucopia, baskets of flowers and fruit, and urns and swags he gave them. He was also a master of the star punch carving that is identified with Salem work and later of Prince of Wales feathers and grapevines. He created several figureheads and other ornamentation for a couple of dozen Salem vessels, although no examples survive.
The exhibition explores McIntire’s career and reexamines his body of work through the approximately 200 objects on view that include carvings, supplemented by furniture, paintings, prints and drawings. The elegant selection of materials and scholarly research shed new light on McIntire as both an artist and an artisan.
The early republic adopted the classical ideals of ancient Greece and Rome and used the decorative elements of those civilizations to express reborn ideals. The classical, the pastoral and the patriotic were incorporated into architecture and sculpture throughout the new nation, but McIntire was the primary practitioner.
Classical ornament celebrated the pastoral and the seasons of spring rebirth and growth, summer plenty and fall harvest. McIntire’s carved baskets of flowers and garlands paid homage to spring; his sheaves of wheat acknowledged the agrarian, particularly grain; and his carved bowls of fruit saluted autumn harvest. His baskets of fruits and flowers were replete with symbolism: the ribbed gourd denoted eternal life, the apple suggested evil or death. No two baskets were ever the same.
The cornucopia was another of McIntire’s favorite subjects signifying plenty; it came to represent the prosperity of Salem and remained a popular decorative element throughout the Nineteenth Century.
McIntire incorporated the classical orders into his works, particularly the Corinthian and Ionic columns, the laurel leaf and the wavy edged waterleaf. Only when a client requested it, and was willing to bear the added expense, did McIntire carve the far more intricate acanthus leaf.
National pride was ascendant and expressions of patriotism appeared everywhere, chief among them the eagle, which had been selected as an icon of the new republic. McIntire was among the first to carve eagles as ornaments on private and public buildings, interiors and furniture.
The likeness of George Washington was also much in demand, and McIntire carved several, including a 38-by-56-inch medallion of the president created for the monumental wooden archway that he designed for Washington Square in Salem. At his death in 1811, eight of his Washington medallions and a number of finished ornaments were found in his shop.
Truly a renaissance man, McIntire included music in his repertoire: he was a musician of note who played the bass viola and the violin with much the same precision that he utilized in his carving techniques; he taught singing and is known to have made several organ cases.
His patron, the Reverend William Bentley, pastor of the East Church in Salem, scholar and diarist, wrote, “All the instruments we use he could understand and was the best person to be employed in correcting any defects, or repairing them.”
Bentley was a large influence on McIntire. Exhibit curator Dean T. Lahikainen said that it was Bentley, possessor of the second greatest library in America, who pushed McIntire from the realm of craftsman to that of artist. Bentley’s diaries reveal much about daily life in Federal Salem and they also provide a great deal of insight into the life and talents of McIntire.
Writing on the occasion of his death, Bentley noted, “By attention he soon gained a superiority to all of his occupation and the present Court House, the North and South Meeting Houses, and indeed all the improvements of Salem for nearly 30 years past have been done under his eye. In sculpture he had no rival in New England and I possess some specimens which I should not scruple to compare with any I ever saw.”
Despite such sentiments, a bust of Governor Winthrop that McIntire carved for Bentley in 1798 did not meet with his patron’s overwhelming enthusiasm.
McIntire’s major patron was the Derby family, for whom he designed his finest houses for more than a quarter-century. Elias Hasket Derby, America’s first millionaire and known as the “Merchant Prince” of the maritime era even though he never went to sea, was among the first to recognize McIntire’s artistry. McIntire’s ultimate commission was the three-story Derby mansion on Essex Street that was commissioned in 1795 and completed in 1798. The house was simply splendid; money was no object and McIntire pulled out all the stops.
McIntire carved 1,000 ornaments for the interior of the Derby home, gave it an elegant central spiral staircase and added extensive detailed plasterwork and mirrored glass throughout. English-style gardens with a coach house, greenhouse and summer house were also designed and erected on the property. The 16-room house was said to be the finest example of Federal design.
Derby and his wife did not live out the year and the house passed to their son. It was torn down in 1814 and its “timbers and woodwork” were purchased by townsmen for their own houses, some of which have been preserved.
McIntire’s other masterpiece was Oak Hill, the country estate he designed for Derby’s daughter, Elizabeth Derby West, and where she lived principally after an exceptionally nasty divorce that rendered her something of a pariah in town. McIntire provided the grandest work of his career for Oak Hill: the carved details in a bedchamber were gilded to showcase their elegance. Oak Hill housed furniture inherited from West’s parents and other pieces commissioned from McIntire.
A chest-on-chest by an unknown Boston maker has been described by Lahikainen as “the Rosetta Stone” of McIntire’s carving. Made for Elizabeth Derby West between 1806 and 1809, it is topped with a carved figural representation of America bearing symbols of liberty, truth and honor. It also boasts putti bearing baskets on their heads and graceful urns. The carving embellishments to the case piece reflect the pinnacle of McIntire’s carving abilities.
For purposes of comparison, the McIntire carved example is on view next to a simliar but earlier, 1791 chest-on-chest by Boston maker Stephen Badlam and carved by the Skillin’s family workshop. The Badlam case piece was one of five such commissions made by Elizabeth Crowninshield Derby for, with the exception of Elizabeth, each of her children. Commissioned for West’s sister Anstiss Derby Pickman, the Badlam/Skillin chest-on-chest is believed to be the inspiration for the Derby West example.
In contrast to the Badlam/Skillin case pieces, the McIntire carved example, as Lahikainen, says, is “over the top” compared to those made for her siblings; no doubt, intentionally so. Lahikainen reports than in examining the Derby West chest-on-chest, he discovered a signature of “J. Shaw” and the date July 14, 1809. He says Shaw was probably an apprentice to the leading cabinetmaker who made the piece.
McIntire frequently worked with cabinetmakers and freely requested modifications to their usual forms so as to accommodate his carvings. The exposed areas of mahogany on the arms and the back of a camel back sofa on view and made in the 1790s was expanded to provide greater space for his carving. He embellished it with fully formed rosettes, cornucopia and grapevines bursting with ripe fruit. The square back sofa, an example of which is also on view, is another of McIntire’s innovations; its wider expanses of wood permitted space for a sumptuously carved overflowing cornucopia, along with rosettes and star punch carving.
An 1801 armchair was constructed of mahogany from Santo Domingo, McIntire’s preferred wood. Based on a plate from Thomas Sheraton’s 1793 Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book, it is one of 12 made for the parlor of the Peirce-Nichols House. McIntire carved the delicate back splats with bellflowers suspended from bows and terminating in rosettes. Its black-striped hair cloth upholstery was woven from the tail and mane of a horse.
Lahikainen, who is the Carolyn and Peter Lynch curator of American decorative art at the Peabody Essex Museum, said the impetus of “Samuel McIntire, Carving an American Style” was the restoration of McIntire’s 1804 Gardner-Pingree House. That restoration, supervised by Lahikainen, revealed much about the extraordinary talents and the oeuvre of McIntire the man.
In putting together the current exhibition, Lahikainen said he logged about 26,000 miles over the span of a year. He inspected McIntire pieces in public and private collections from Seattle to London and San Francisco, and back again. As he describes it, “I looked at every piece it was possible to see” in order to document what was and what was not McIntire.
To that end he filled 30 notebooks that occupy a large space in his office. Photographs of the objects that he saw and others in the exhibit fill several walls. In the course of his travels he looked at a number of pieces long thought to have been McIntire works that turned out not to be. Lahikainen explained that many were meticulous copies, often commissioned by family members who inherited only one or two chairs of an entire set dispersed among heirs. Others, he said, were also meticulous reproductions, made in the 1920s and 1930s when Colonial Revivalism led to a renewed appreciation of earlier work.
“Samuel McIntire, Carving an American Style” remains on view at the Peabody Essex Museum through February 24. The accompanying volume Samuel McIntire, Carving an American Style by Dean T. Lahikainen is a publication of the University Press of New England.
As part of the exhibition, PEM will host the symposium, “The Art of Woodcarving in America,” November 3 and 4 at the museum. Such experts as Alan Miller, Lahikainen and Brock Jobe will lecture and demonstrate new research on woodcarving. They will look at the work of McIntire, William Rush, Duncan Phyfe and John Welch.
The Gardner-Pingree House and the Peirce-Nichols House, both designed by McIntire, will be open to the public during the exhibition. The 1801 parlor of the Peirce-Nichols House was recently restored for the occasion of this exhibition and to celebrate the 250th anniversary of McIntire’s birth.
The Peabody Essex Museum is at East India Square. For information, 866-745-1876 or www.pem.org .
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