The World of Duncan Phyfe: The Arts of New York, 1800-1847
December 15th 2011 - February 17th 2012
Duncan Phyfe (1768–1854), whose name is known to even those with the most casual interest in American art and American history, holds a prominent place in a list of those who have made significant contributions to the arts of the United States. During the course of a career of more than four decades in America, Phyfe’s shop produced extraordinary pieces of furniture for some of the wealthiest and most prominent figures of their time, in New York and beyond.

In December 2011, The Metropolitan Museum of Art opens a comprehensive exhibition that will ultimately travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, chronicling the life and work of Duncan Phyfe, Scottish émigré, with a thorough view of his work through four decades. In so doing, they will present the history of the popularity of Phyfe, particularly with respect to his early “signature” style, addressing the quagmire of “look-alike” and revival pieces, which have been responsible for promoting—and often tarnishing—the use of the word “Phyfe” as a generic descriptor for an early American Neo-classical style.

The World of Duncan Phyfe at Hirschl & Adler Galleries is not an attempt to duplicate the show simultaneously opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Instead, we provide an addendum to their focus on Phyfe, including not only a selection of works by Phyfe from each of his various periods, but also representative pieces by competing cabinetmakers in New York, among them Charles-Honoré Lannuier, Michael Allison, Thomas Constantine, and J. and J. W. Meeks, as well as other pieces that have hitherto defied meaningful attribution. Also included is a variety of other decorative arts dating from Phyfe’s period of activity, including examples of silver, porcelain, metalwork, and lighting being made in New York, or in many cases produced abroad for an American clientele, together with a group of New York-centric paintings, works on paper, and sculpture. The result is a multi-media exhibition of over 100 pieces that together illustrate the strength and breadth of the artistry and craftsmanship in New York during the first half of the nineteenth century.

To best showcase the work of Duncan Phyfe through his many stylistic phases, this exhibition includes a beautiful set of dining chairs made by Phyfe about 1810 for Isaac Bell, a wealthy merchant and investor from New York. In marked contrast to their early, reeded aesthetic, largely derived from the English Regency, a long set of sixteen dining chairs en gondole documented to have been made by the Phyfe shop in 1835 for Stephen Van Renssaelaer IV of Albany, are simple and bold, with their beautifully figured mahogany veneers serving as their only adornment. A group of figural furniture, featuring winged ladies, griffins, lions, harps, and lyres ascribed to the workshop of Duncan Phyfe, helps to define the middle years of Phyfe’s long career.

In the way of furniture by competing cabinetmakers of the period also working in New York, one of the great masterworks to be included in this exhibition is a Center Table (about 1815–19) labeled by French émigré Charles-Honoré Lannuier, who has been credited with introducing French-style furniture to America. The table was made for Nathaniel Prime, the first Director of the New York Stock Exchange (1817) and one of the wealthiest men in New York at the time. It is one of only three known center tables by the maker. We are also pleased to show an Armchair for the Chamber of the House of Representatives, United States Capitol, Washington, D.C., made in 1818–19 by Thomas Constantine of New York.

Among the porcelain, silver, metalwork, and lighting included in The World of Duncan Phyfe is an extraordinary and rare Chinese Export Porcelain monumental covered serving dish made for Governor DeWitt Clinton and his wife, an exquisite pair of “Old Paris” porcelain vases bearing the likenesses of Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, and another pair of “Old Paris” vases with scenes from the War of 1812.

The fine arts include a major “Athenaeum-type” portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart from about 1806 and Thomas Sully’s Portrait of George Frederick Cooke, of 1811. Also represented are many of New York’s finest portrait painters of Phyfe’s day including Henry Inman, the partners Samuel Waldo and William Jewett, and George Linen. John James Audubon is represented by a rare original watercolor, Long Haired Squirrel, executed around 1841 for the Viviparous Quadripeds, his successful follow-up to the celebrated Birds of America. The exhibit also explores the advent of American topographical printmaking in New York through the urban scenes of William Bennett and John William Hill, and the more rural landscape collaborations of William Guy Wall and John Hill, particularly their seminal Hudson River Portfolio, 1821–25, a remarkable set of twenty aquatints that anticipated the rise of the Hudson River School.

The World of Duncan Phyfe inaugurates our year-long celebration the 60th Anniversary of the founding of Hirschl & Adler Galleries at the Marguery Hotel in New York City in 1952—just 105 years after the era of Duncan Phyfe came to an end. Following the succession of major Neo-classical decorative arts exhibitions and catalogues produced by Hirschl & Adler Galleries over the years, including Neo-Classicism in America (1991), Boston in the Age of Neo-Classicism, 1810–-1840 (1999), Of the Newest Fashion (2001), In Pointed Style, The Gothic Revival in America (2006), and For Work and For Play (2008), this exhibition chronicles yet one other aspect of the arts of the United States in the early years of the nineteenth century.