Published: November 13, 2001
The Luce Foundation Awards $150,000 to The Connecticut Historical Society
HARTFORD, CONN. – The Henry Luce Foundation recently awarded $150,000 to The Connecticut Historical Society for a groundbreaking exhibition and reference work on furniture of the Connecticut Valley made in the Eighteenth Century.
The book will appear along with the traveling exhibition, which opens at the CHS in the fall of 2003. These are based on the findings of an eleven-year ongoing research project known as The Hartford Case Furniture Survey carried out by independent furniture scholars Alice Kugelman, Thomas P. Kugelman, and Robert Lionetti. The project focuses on the rich, but little known, output of cabinetmakers in the Connecticut Valley between Springfield and Middletown during the last half of the Eighteenth Century.
“We are thrilled to receive this significant grant from the Luce Foundation,” commented Dr. Susan P. Schoelwer, director of museum collections at CHS. “In addition to funding critical aspects of the project, the Luce grant recognizes the value of this project to scholarship in American art.
The Kugelmans and Lionetti cast an extraordinarily wide and thorough net in search of relevant examples of Hartford-area case furniture. In addition to pieces in museums and other public collections they discovered key examples in private collections, several of which are still residing in the houses for which they was made. Another key source of previously unknown material has been the sales environment, particularly auctions, with the cooperation of major auction houses.
The result of The Hartford Case Furniture Survey is an unprecedented compendium of furniture from a specific region. Of approximately 500 pieces given an initial screening, about three hundred fall into the geographic scope of the upcoming book. As the research team explained in a 1993 report, “we attempt to be rigorous about selecting objects with convincing attributions, such as a signature, documentable local history, or strong similarity to a documented piece.”
Objects with significant alterations or other questions were not included. The research team examined each piece in detail, using worksheets to record approximately 100 features of design, decoration and construction. In addition, each piece was photographed to record overall appearance and specific features, producing an archive of 8,000 study photographs.
Case furniture was selected, instead of chairs or tables, because of the very large number of choices the cabinetmaker had to make. As the project progressed, certain characteristics emerged as “significant index features” appearing in patterns that enable the team to identify not only groups of furniture with “decided similarities of design and construction” but also sub-sets within the groups.
“The book and exhibition will make several distinctive contributions to American arts scholarship,” noted Schoelwer. “First, it will answer a longstanding need for an overall framework for the study and appreciation of Eighteenth Century Hartford County furniture. More broadly, the work of the Kugelmans and Robert Lionetti will effectively model a field-tested, empirical methodology for making attributions that can be replicated to enhance the story of early American furniture in other regions.”
The first breakthrough came early in the study when the team was able to identify the output of Eliphalet Chapin’s shop in East Windsor. Chapin, who never signed a piece of furniture, trained numerous apprentices, some of whom signed their work even while working in Eliphalet’s shop.
Using signatures and other documentation, the study developed specific criteria for attribution of case furniture to Eliphalet’s shop, to cabinetmakers trained by him (Chapin school) and others who were influenced by his work. These findings were published in Maine Antique Digest in January 1994 and in another article, “The Connecticut Valley Oxbow Chest,” October 1995.
Further along in the study, equally large and important centers of furniture-making emerged in Colchester, Wethersfield, and Springfield. Close study brought to light names of new cabinetmakers in these, as well as smaller, towns. In some cases, key furniture-making shops have been identified, while the names of their masters still remain a mystery.
None of these centers fit exactly the Chapin/East Windsor model, making conclusions much harder to come by. It is hoped that publishing detailed information on the output of these shops, including original owners when known, will assist future scholars in assigning previously unidentified work to these shops. Perhaps it will become possible to uncover named of the shop masters.
“For the first time,” says Alice Kugelman, we realize that the Connecticut Valley has a rich heritage of furniture-making, absolutely its own, that dates back to the 1670s. These were gifted craftsmen. We don’t think of this as Connecticut makers trying to make Boston or Newport furniture, but men who created their own regional Connecticut styles drawing design inspiration from many sources, while training and working within their own craft tradition.”
Towards the end of the Eighteenth Century many of these makers joined the outmigration and carried the Connecticut style to New York State, western Massachusetts, North Carolina and other destinations. This newly discovered diaspora is an important part of the upcoming book.
This book is intended to serve as a major reference work in the field of American arts scholarship. In addition to cataloguing some three hundred pieces of furniture and showcasing the major style centers, it will make widely available The Hartford Case Furniture Survey’s highly significant research methodology as well as its groundbreaking results.
“The value of this publication will extend far beyond Connecticut’s borders,” added project consultant Philip Zimmerman. The amount of material in the study and the thoroughness with which it is treated is unprecedented. This book will change how everyone looks at early American furniture.”
According to Brock Jobe, professor of American decorative arts at the H.F. du Pont Winterthur Museum, the research carried out by the Hartford Case Furniture Survey is already “legendary; indeed, no one has approached the subject of American furniture in such a thorough and systematic way. The results will surely redefine the field.”
Jobe is among a group of leading authorities on American furniture who have agreed to serve as contributors or advisors to the book and exhibition at The Connecticut Historical Society. Others include Patricia. E. Kane, curator of American decorative arts at the Yale University Art Gallery; Philip Zea, vice president for museums and collections at the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities; independent furniture scholar Philip D. Zimmerman; antiques dealer and Antiques Roadshow host Leigh Keno; Morrison H. Heckscher, chairman of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; independent furniture scholar Robert F. Trent; and Gerald W.R. Ward, curator of American decorative arts and sculpture, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The Henry Luce Foundation was established in 1936 by the late Henry R. Luce, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time Inc. The American Art Program focuses on the American fine and decorative arts and is committed to scholarship and the overall enhancement of this field.
With assets of approximately $1 billion, the Luce Foundation also supports projects in higher education, Asian affairs, theology, women in science and engineering, and public policy and the environment. Under the Program in American Art, begun in 1982, the foundation has distributed over $90 million to some 200 museums, universities, and service organizations in 47 states and the District of Columbia.
Additional funding to support the research and publication has been received from the following foundations: the Alexander A. Goldfarb Memorial Trust, the Paul Foundation, the Frederick and Susan Copeland Trust, Marguerite Riordan, and Mary B. Walton.
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