Creole Louisiana Architecture and Furniture, 1735–1835

Cybèle Gontar, Fashion Institute of Technology

Tuesday, April 12, 2011Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
Louisiana armoire, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Louisiana armoire, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Louisiana walnut pied-de-biche table

Louisiana walnut pied-de-biche table, 1750-1790, Judice Family collection, formerly in the Ursuline Convent, New Orleans

Clara de la Motte, ca. 1795, by Jose Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza

Clara de la Motte, ca. 1795, by Jose Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza, Historic New Orleans Collection

Marigny Plantation, detail of Plan de la Nouvelle Orleans et des Environs dedie au Citoyen Laussat Prefet Colonial et Commissaire de la Republique Francaise

Marigny Plantation, detail of Plan de la Nouvelle Orleans et des Environs dedie au Citoyen Laussat Prefet Colonial et Commissaire de la Republique Francaise, 1803, by Joseph Antoine Vinache, watercolor and ink. Historic New Orleans Collection

Caleb Wilkinson, Ménuesier-Ebéniste newspaper advertisement

Caleb Wilkinson, Ménuesier-Ebéniste newspaper advertisement

Cybèle Trione Gontar, a native of New Orleans, has researched the cabinetmaking trade in early Louisiana, 1735–1835. Early settlers and government officials, such as Jean-Charles de Pradel and Pierre Laussat, imported elegant moveables from Paris. (The French word for furniture, meubles, means moveable furniture as distinguished from built-in furnishings.) Colonial plantations, however, had menuisiers’ workshops where carpentry work was done on site, and where utilitarian items — such as tables, chairs and armoires — were crafted from locally abundant cypress and walnut. Exotic hardwoods from other French colonies in the West Indies were also available from New Orleans marchands de bois (wood merchants) to create more elegant pieces.

Censuses, city directories, inventories, indenture contracts and newspaper advertisements abound with the names of menusiers, menusier-ebenistes, doreurs (gilders), turners and joiners, both enslaved and free. Connecting the historical record of a particular craftsman to a piece of antique furniture, however, is exceedingly rare.

One example of a documented furniture maker, whose works cannot be identified, is Philippe Auguste. His August, 1808 advertisement in the Courrier de la Louisiane offered for sale, as part of a moving sale to another New Orleans shop location, his entire inventory of mahogany and cherry wood furniture, including 16 clothes presses (armoires) and numerous bedsteads and tables. Monsieur Auguste also sold a lot of cherry wood and his chest of carpenters’ tools, including saws, benches, a holdfast, a turner’s wheel and other materials related to inlaying. This newspaper advertisement contains a wealth of information concerning the identity of an early maker of Louisiana armoires, yet he remains unconnected to any particular piece of furniture. Another 1808 document identifies Philippe Auguste as un homme de couleur libre (a free man of color). M. Auguste may have been one of the considerable influx of emigres from San Domingue. Artisans from other Caribbean islands and German immigrant cabinetmakers added to melange of Louisiana decorative arts.

Cybèle Gontar worked at Gallier House Museum as a curatorial assistant in her native New Orleans while earning a bachelor’s degree in art history from the University of New Orleans. She continued at the local history museum until she left for the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she helped build and maintain a computer database of the museum’s collections.

In New York, she also earned a master’s degree in the history of European decorative arts from the Cooper-Hewitt-National Design Museum. Her education in European decorative arts naturally dovetails with her interest in the cosmopolitan decorative arts of Louisiana.

As an archival researcher at James Madison’s Montepelier, she studied documentation of the home’s architectural design and interior furnishings — including a notable Campeche chair that is believed to have been a gift to James Madison by Thomas Jefferson. The Louisiana Campeche chair — originally made of embossed leather or caned sling seat on a non-folding curule base — derives its name from a Mexican port city known for its exportation of logwood.

Since 2007, Mademoiselle Gontar has been a graduate student in the City University of New York’s doctoral program in art history, studying American art of the 18th and 19th centuries. She has been an adjunct professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, and she now teaches modern and American art at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. She has lectured about Louisiana furniture at the Museo Franz Mayer in Mexico City and at Historic New Orleans.

Cybèle Gontar was one of the main authors of the ground-breaking “Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735-1835” (2010). One of her co-authors, H. Parrott Bacot, spoke to the Forum about the “Quest for Comfort: Lighting, 1675-1840” in August 2003, and “Nineteenth Century New Orleans Silver” in June, 1995. “Furnishing Louisiana” follows in the footsteps of earlier research by Tulane University Professor Emeritus Jessie Poesch. Dr. Poesch spoke to the Forum about “Furniture Traditions in Louisiana” in July, 1989. Stephen Harrison, from the Louisiana State Museum, presented “The New Orleans Furniture Trade in the Nineteenth Century” in January, 1997.

Ms Gontar’s contributions to The Magazine Antiques are “Spanish Chairs in the New Republic” (2010); “The American Campeche Chair” (2009); “The Butterfly Man of New Orleans: A Rare Group of Creole Style Armoires Identified” (2008) with Jack Holden; and “Rediscovering James Madison‘s Montpelier. Part I: The Exterior Restoration” (2007). She also contributed “Furniture Collecting in Louisiana” (2010) and “Three Federal Campeachys from Washington, D.C.” (forthcoming) to Antiques and Fine Art Magazine. She will also curate an exhibit of Campeche chairs at New Orleans’ Cabildo, in the French Quarter, in January, 2012.

Listen to the podcast with Susan Doherty & Martin Willis interviewing the April 12th lecture guest, Cybele Gontar, co-author of the new book on Louisiana Acadian & Creole Furniture, 1735–1835.

7:15pm mini-exhibit

The mind boggles at what French-influenced objects and images might appear at the mini-exhibition: cooking utensils for preparing French cuisine; a plate from Diderot & d’Alembert’s “Encyclopedia”; a miniature Eiffel Tower sold as a tourist memento; or even a naughty post card. Quelle surprise! Of course, gentlemen may wear a favorite Hermes tie and ladies their favorite Dior outfit, or even a scent of Chanel Number 5.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.