To Carve, Inlay or Paint: New York Neoclassical Furniture

Matthew Thurlow, The Decorative Arts Trust

Tuesday, August 10, 2010Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
New York Sideboard 1795-1805

Sideboard, New York City, 1795-1805. Mahogany, mahogany and satinwood veneer; white pine, yellow poplar and ash. Winterthur Museum and Country Estate, bequest of Henry Francis du Pont, 1957.0850

New York Side Chair 1790-1800

Side chair, New York City, 1790-1800. Mahogany, satinwood veneer, cherry and yellow poplar. Winterthur Museum and Country Estate, bequest of Henry Francis du Pont, 1957.0675

Can you name a New York federal cabinetmaker—-other than Duncan Phyfe? Matthew Thurlow can because his Winterthur thesis was on Thomas Constantine, the New York cabinetmaker who furnished the United States Senate Chamber in 1819. Matt also researched the New York cabinetmaking trade when was a curatorial intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

New York welcomed federal furniture after the last British troops evacuated New York City on November 25, 1783, thereby ending the longest occupation of an American port city during the Revolutionary War. The city had suffered greatly under British control, which began in September 1776 with a great fire that consumed more than a quarter of its buildings. Like the mythical phoenix frequently depicted in neoclassical art, New York emerged from the ashes during the ensuing decades, gradually developing into the hub of the United States’ mercantile network, a transformation that continued with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. This period of rebuilding and growth was accompanied by a precipitous rise in population, fueled by rapid immigration, that resulted in a vibrant craftsman community eager to serve a ready, market of fashion-conscious consumers, in New York and along the East Coast.

Americans were reluctant to embrace neoclassical decorative arts that had developed in England and France in the 1760s and 1770s. The American Revolution and cessation of trade with Great Britain further impeded the adoption of current styles. Only following the cessation of hostilities and the resumption of trade between the former colonies and Europe did this new taste take hold. As the nation’s first capital and thriving business entrepôt, New York also attracted a significant international community, including Scottish and Irish artisans, as well as refugees from the French Revolution. Immigrant artisans brought firsthand knowledge of these designs to the city while native-born furniture makers benefited from access to George Hepplewhite’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (1788), Thomas Sheraton’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book (1793) and the illustrations in Thomas Shearer’s Cabinet-Makers’ London Book of Prices (1788).

Although direct copies of these designs were manufactured in great profusion, New York cabinetmakers also creatively interpreted what early 20th-century antiquarians would come to call the federal style. By harnessing the talents of specialists such as inlay makers, carvers, gilders and decorative painters, these furniture makers created stunning, local interpretations of neoclassicism with distinctive geometrical shapes and classical motifs. Matt Thurlow’s lecture will delve into the rich body of extant work that brings this period of artistic exuberance to life, and he will discuss the importance of federal New York furniture to collectors of early Americana.

Matthew Thurlow graduated from Washington and Lee University with a bachelor’s degree in archaeology and sociology. He also earned master’s degrees from the College of William and Mary in anthropology, specializing in historical archaeology, for which his thesis was “‘Profanely and in Great Scandal’: Deviance, Authority, and Social Control in Middlesex and Surry Counties, Virginia, 1672-1682.” The thesis for his master’s degree from the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture was “Thomas Constantine, Cabinetmaker and Wood Merchant in Early Nineteenth-Century New York.”

While in college and graduate school, Mr. Thurlow served as an intern to the registrar at the Valentine Museum, Richmond, VA; curatorial intern at Colonial Williamsburg; curatorial intern at the Bermuda Maritime Museum, Mangrove Bay, Bermuda (where he excavated, catalogued and conserved the artifacts associated with a human burial uncovered within the foundation of an 18th century British fort); and curatorial intern at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Following graduation from Winterthur, he became a curatorial intern, then research associate and installations coordinator, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Continuing to research the topic of his Winterthur thesis, Mr. Thurlow contributed “Power, Politics, and Aesthetics in Early Nineteenth-Century Washington, DC: T. Constantine & Co.’s Furniture for the United States Capitol, 1818-1819” to American Furniture (2006). Mr. Thurlow also contributed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s forthcoming exhibition catalogue on Duncan Phyfe (2011) and he wrote “New York Furniture for the Stirlings of Wakefield, Saint Francisville, Louisiana” for The Magazine Antiques (2007). He also taught, in New York, at the Cooper-Hewitt/Parsons program in the history of decorative arts and design.

From his participation in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Young Audience Development Organization, he developed an interest in museum management that led to his current position at Winterthur’s Development Division, where he combines curatorship and research with museum administration, in order to develop as a complete museum professional. Since leaving the American Wing in January, Matt manages Winterthur’s Collectors Circle and assists the curatorial department with fund raising for exhibitions, acquisitions and other collections-based initiatives. He also remains actively engaged in researching American furniture. Matt Thurlow last spoke to the Forum in 2007 on “Competing Scrolls and Cabrioles: Stiff Competition in the New York Furniture Trade, 1825-1850”

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Do you have decorative arts objects “in ruins”? or perhaps a memento of your Grand Tour? Share your neoclassical objects and images, architecture with columns, or borders with anthemia or a Greek key fret. Like the lecture’s topic, these motifs may be carved, inlaid or painted (as well as many other techniques) on silver, pewter, needlework, paintings, prints, transfer-printed earthenwares, molded glass bottles or decanters, chairs or an Empire gown or shawl.


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.