Painted Chinese Red and Gilded “Fancy” Side Chair
Attributed to Thomas S. Renshaw and John Barnhart, Baltimore, Maryland, about 1815
Wood, painted and gilded, with caning, 32 ½ in. high, 19 in. wide, 21 in. deep overall
In the years following 1800, Baltimore became a center for the production of paint-decorated furniture of ultimate quality and sophistication. John and Hugh Finlay produced an array of chairs and settees and tables of many forms in a succession of Neo-Classical styles, starting with delicate designs inspired by those of Thomas Sheraton and progressing to a heavier, more archaeological Greek Revival aesthetic.
A settee in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland (see William Voss Elder III, Baltimore Painted Furniture 1800-1840, exhib. cat. [Baltimore, Maryland: The Baltimore Museum of Art, April 18-June 4, 1972], pp. 42-43, no. 29, described and illus.) bears the names of Thomas S. Renshaw and John Barnhart, the former as cabinetmaker and the latter as “ornamenter,” a “short-lived partnership in the years 1814-15 at 37 South Gay Street, Baltimore.” Barnhart is listed sporadically in the Baltimore city directories between 1799 and 1829 as a “sign and ornamental” painter. After a brief appearance in Baltimore, Renshaw moved to Chillicothe, Ohio, then capital of the state.
The present chair is very close in style to the signed Renshaw/Barnhart settee, both featuring oval landscape panels on the crestrail, with “shadows” suggesting a source of light at the right. Otherwise, the gilded border of a Greek key on the crestrail, the form and decoration of the front stretcher, the shape of the legs, etc., are very similar to their work, and thus inspire an attribution to them. On the other hand, Alexandra Kirtley, Assistant Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has pointed out that the Finlays and Barnhart/Renshaw were not alone in supplying painted decoration in Baltimore. She notes that Cornelius deBeet (1772-1840) a Dutch-born landscape painter trained in the academic tradition, advertised himself variously between 1810 and 1840 in the Baltimore directories as a fancy painter, painter, and ornamental painter. Stiles Colwill has pointed out a letter written by the painter Rembrandt Peale to Thomas Jefferson in 1825 noting that “for a while he [de Beet] was engaged in Baltimore ornamenting Windsor chairs for Messrs. Finlay.”
The background color is a brilliant Chinese red, which is seen on other pieces of Baltimore furniture in this manner, including a card table at the Baltimore Museum, and another at Winterthur, as well as a settee at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.