Craft and artistry of Rhode Island furniture makers featured in Yale Art Gallery exhibit

Elaborately carved chairs, high chests, bureau tables, and clocks — as well as paintings, silver, and other objects — are on display in the Yale University Art Gallery’s newest exhibition, “Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture 1650–1830,” on view through Jan. 8.

The exhibit, the most complete survey of Rhode Island furniture ever assembled, brings together more than 130 objects from museums, historical societies, and private collections across the country. The exhibition explores the broad reach of Rhode Island’s furniture production, from the boom of the export trade starting about 1740 and its steady growth throughout the 18th century to the gradual decline of the handcraft tradition in the 19th century.

“Art and Industry in Early America” is the culmination of more than a decade of research for the gallery’s Rhode Island Furniture Archive under the direction of Patricia E. Kane, the Friends of the American Arts Curator of American Decorative Arts. Those research findings included the discovery of the maker of a desk and bookcase featured in the exhibition, which is now attributed to Daniel Spencer, as well as the reattribution of several pieces as coming from Rhode Island and the discovery of new pieces by previously unknown makers. These are also featured in the exhibition.

“This landmark study has shown that there are many new insights into this important school of American furniture making still to be gained through the reexamination of surviving objects and the careful combing of the historical record,” said Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale Art Gallery, noting that the exhibition and its accompanying publication were made possible by Kane’s “scholarship and dedication to the project.”

“Slant-Front Desk,” Bristol, Rhode Island, 1740–60. Private collection (Photo by Christopher Gardner)

The exhibit opens with examples of 17th-century pieces, a rarity both because there were fewer pieces created in the small Colony of Rhode Island during that time and because few have survived to the present day. Also on display are examples from the early 18th-century and the “golden age” of furniture making in the colony (1740–1780). The latter feature details such as the distinctive Rhode Island compressed ball turnings, and seashell and inlaid compass-star motifs.

After the Revolutionary War, Rhode Island became the center of Windsor chairmaking in New England. Originally used as outdoor seating in English gardens, Windsor chairs became popular in the new nation as seating for civic spaces such as town halls and colony houses. Early Federal-period Rhode Island furniture was characterized by distinctive pictorial inlay patterns, such as bellflowers and paterae, on tables and case pieces. In the 19th century, furniture makers moved away from these designs, instead using contrasting veneers and turned reeded or fluted legs to ornament their objects. Examples of these different styles are on view in the exhibition.

To better demonstrate the craft and artistry that went into making these varied furniture forms, “Art and Industry in Early America”features several videos that demonstrate how Rhode Island furniture was made. The videos show contemporary craftsmen making a banister-back chair; carving a reproduction of a 17th-century wainscot chair; and demonstrating techniques for creating various types of ornamentation and construction, including claw-and-ball feet, shells, and dovetail joints.

For more than a century, Rhode Island craftspeople produced objects that combined artistry and industry, design and engineering, said Kane, noting that this furniture graced the homes of early America and was shipped to ports both near and far.

“It is very exciting to see this long-awaited exhibition come together,” she said. “It’s our hope that “Art and Industry”will inspire a newfound appreciation for one of the most important schools of furniture making in early America.

“Carver Chair,” Kingstown or Westerly, Rhode Island, 1670–1710 (left) and “High-Back Windsor Armchair,” Newport, 1765–1770 (center). Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library, Del. (Photos courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library); and “Side Chair” (right), probably Newport, 1730–1760. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Anne H. and Frederick Vogel III, in memory of Mary and John Walton (Photo: Yale University Art Gallery)

A series of lectures and gallery talks — ranging from Native American life in colonial Rhode Island to religious freedom and slavery in colonial Newport, and from French influence on furniture style to contemporary furniture making in the state — will be presented in conjunction with the exhibition. Information on related events is available here. A related publication, “Art and Industry in Early American: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650–1830,” will be available beginning in September.

The Yale University Art Gallery, located at 1111 Chapel St. (between York High), is open to the public free of charge 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; until 8 p.m. on Thursdays from September to June; and 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. It is closed Mondays and major holidays. For more information, visit the museum’s website.

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