Published: July 25, 2000
NEW YORK CITY – The New York Historical Society and The Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture will host the exhibit “” which runs through September 3.
In 1817, the widow of Gouverneur Morris, a founder of the American Republic and president of the Historical Society, donated to the Society an Eighteenth Century French chair. Originally created for Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI as part of a set for the palace at Versailles, the chair has been determined by art historians to be made for the king himself.
The exhibition “” includes paintings and artifacts relating to Morris (including his wooden leg) that illustrate the history of the chair and how it came to be part of the collection. The exhibition also documents the extensive conservation process it has undergone in preparation for permanent display in The Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, opening in November. “” would not be possible without the generous support of the Florence Gould Foundation.
In November, The New-York Historical Society will open it Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, a permanent display of over 40,000 objects from the museum collection of paintings, sculpture, histor8ical artifacts and decorative art, many of which have never before been on public view. The chair will be on permanent display in the center.
In the year 1817, an important piece of French furniture entered the New-York Historical Society’s collection. It was donated by the family of one of the founders of the American Republic, Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816), who is recognized as helping conceive American capitalism as it functions today. One hundred eighty-three years later – this handsome chair has been conserved.
When The New-York Historical Society’s trustees received the donation of an Eighteenth Century French side chair from Mrs Gouverneur Morris in 1817 (one year after her husband’s death), they entered its description in the board meeting minutes as “an elegant chair, for the President of the Society’s seat.” Gouverneur Morris had served as the vice-president of the historical society from 1810 to 1815 and then as President until his death in 1816. The minutes might have more appropriately read, “an elegant seat for the King of France,” or perhaps, “Un siege pour le Roi.”
The side chair was created for Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, the monarchs who inherited the throne of a financially unstable France in 1774. The growing social unrest of their reign spawned the French Revolution in 1789. First stripped of their authority, and then tried for treason, the King and Queen of France were executed in 1793. After the Revolution, the furnishings of Versailles were auctioned off to the public.
Among the rdf_Descriptions sold was this chair, a unique component of the “Grand Cabinet-Interior” at the palace. Marie Antoinette had ordered it along with other furnishing for the redecoration of the royal bedchambers in 1779. Designed by Jacques Gondoin, the architect to the French crown, and built by Francois Foliot, one of the most talented craftsmen of the Eighteenth Century, the Historical Society’s chair was the only one of its style ordered for the royal suite. According to the palace inventory, which documented the delivery of the furniture, there were six armchairs of one design, two of another construction, and one side chair designed and intended for use only by the King. The New York Historical Society’s side chair alone was designed for the monarch.
This distinction has been verified by art historians familiar with the other furnishings of the suite as well as evidence from the chair itself. An entry in the Journal du Gard-Meuble, the inventory of all French royal residences, states that only one chair was ever made for use by the King, different in design from all others. All other furnishings of the suite have been accounted for and no other museum or private owner is in possession of a duplicate of this particular chair. The inventory number from Francois Foliot’s studio on the underside of the chair seat reads “1” denoting that this was the first chair in the furniture set delivered to the palace, where the King’s furniture always had priority. Finally, this chair not only differs in style, but it is also wider and taller than the others in the suite, indicating a superior utility.
It appears that neither Gouverneur Morris, who bought the chair at the Versailles action, nor his wife, who gave it to the historical society, knew its specific purpose: to seat the King. The story of its purchases is, nevertheless, a revelatory tale in the histories of the early United States, its leaders and their relationship to France.
Gouverneur Morris of New York was an important statesman at both the state and the federal level. “Gouverneur” was the first name (it is not a political title, as is often thought) in honor of his mother, Sarah Gouverneur. In New York City today there is still a Bronx neighborhood named “Morrisania,” after the family and their Eighteenth Century land holdings. Despite the fact that Morris never served in the role of “governor” he contributed politically to the young nation in many arenas. He was a delegate to both the Provincial Congress (1775-77) and the Continental Congress (1778-79) and was later to serve on the US Senate (1800-03). Elected to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Morris was credited by James Madison among others as the foremost author of the United States Constitution.
As an early leader of the democratic nation, yet still rooted in the colonial aristocracy, Morris was an outspoken Federalist who feared the domination of the mob. It is thus not surprising perhaps that Morris was one of the many American sympathizers with the French Crown during the years leading to the French Revolution.
More than a sympathizer, Gouverneur Morris was a zealous and fluent Francophile, who moved to France in 1789, where he befriended the royal family. George Washington appointed him United States ambassador to France in 1792. Following Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, Morris served as “Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of France” until 1794. Despite his distaste and mistrust of the French Revolutionary party, he fulfilled his post with distinction and impartiality. He was the only foreign ambassador to stay in France during the Reign of Terror.
In 1792 and 1793, the French revolutionaries held a series of auctions of the royal family’s belongings at Versailles; Morris was often in attendance. He returned to his home in New York with the King’s chair and other furniture from the royal household These were some of the earliest pieces of French furniture ever brought to the United States. And what could be more fitting for one of the United States’ first connoisseurs than to aid in establishing a museum? Gouverneur Morris joined other prominent New Yorkers to found The New-York Historical Society in 1804. He later served the Society as Vice President and as President. The 18th Century French side chair, however, remained in his home until after his death in 1816.
The New-York Historical Society values the chair not only for its royal provenance and its link to the Society’s founding, but also as a unique, multi-layered historical document. Through its design and its chain of owners, the chair tells the stories of the dawn of two Revolutionary republics – France and America.
In order to preserve this object and the stories the chair tells, the New-York Historical Society spent many years to restoring the French side chair. In 1985, the society initiated a phased plan of conservation and management for all collections. Included in this effort were the stabilization and restoration for the King’s seat, a project funded with grants from the Getty Foundation and, most critically, the Florence Gould Foundation located in New York City.
The society hired a French conservator, Jacques Goujon, or Paris, to repair the joinery of the wooden frame and to preserve its gilding. The conservation of the chair was divided into two main components: conservation of the frame and conservation of the upholstery. Goujon completed the first part in Paris in 1993 and returned the chair to New York in the same year.
Although the frame of the chair had survived well (despite the loss of much of its gilding), the upholstery was in worse condition. Not only had the fine, silken fabric faded, but it was also disintegrating. Many areas of the seat cushion had torn, revealing the horsehair stuffing and the weaving underneath. Due to its fragile condition, a complete restoration using the original materials was out of the question. The Society decided instead to purchase a reproduction of the original fabric, to be used when displaying the chair, while attempting separately to stabilize what was left of the original upholstery. Very little fabric from the original Versailles furnishings survives in any state; the Society’s sample is of historic value even though deteriorated.
Luckily, the French firm, Tassinari and Chatel, which wove the original silk for Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, still exists and could reproduce the fabric from the original design card. In order to maximize the education that this historical document can offer while preventing further disintegration, the Society implemented two innovative, conservation interventions for the upholstery. Both were conceived by the consulting conservator, Nancy Britton, who is the associate conservator for the Upholstered Works of Art for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Britton has fabricated a removable seat and back cushions composed of the new fabric woven by Tassinari and Chatel. In order to prevent any damage to the restored wooden frame, she constructed removable cushions without fasteners. This enables the society to offer historians the chance to easily view and examine the full construction of this masterwork of Eighteenth Century craftsmanship.
Since light would hasten the disintegration of the original upholstery, horsehair stuffing and webbing, these rdf_Descriptions cannot be displayed. In order, however, that these materials will still be available, an enclosed cabinet has been designed which will have drawers to house each layer of upholstery.
Margaret Hofer, associate curator of decorative arts at the Historical Society, is the curator of the exhibition “.”
The New-York Historical Society, Two West 77th Street at Central Park West, is open Tuesday to Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm. For information, call 212/873-3400.
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