Anna Katharine Green and Charles Rohlfs: Artistic collaborators

In addition to herliterary career and the general decoration of the family’s houses, Green’sartistic pursuits are known to have included watercolor painting and theillumination of poetry. Probably in the 1860s, perhaps during her years atRipley Female College (now Green Mountain College) in Poultney, Vermont, shecreated a set of illuminated poems entitled “Songs from the Poets” (see Fig.6), a beautifully rendered set of drawings with text that provides compellingevidence that she had a role in the design of the settee in Figure 5, whichis almost certainly the earliest surviving object created by Rohlfs andGreen.2 The carved ornamentation onthe settee is both whimsical and virtuosic, but it is not integrated into theoverall design. Largely kept to the periphery and the center of the seatapron, the ornaments seem to float on the boards they adorn. Those on theinterior surfaces of the arm supports resemble plumes ascending dramaticallyupward before turning back downward and spiraling inward (see Fig. 5a). Suchfeather motifs, a favorite Victorian design, connect closely to thenineteenth-century decorative styles in which Green had been steeped, as ismanifest in the similarly arced ascent of the I that begins her illumination of “The IndianGirl’s Song” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (see Fig. 7). Similarly, the lowerplumage of the I and the spiralingflourish below the B beginning “Break, Break, Break” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Fig. 8), are related to the smaller feather motif that decorates the upper right and left posts of the settee (see Fig. 5b).

The case for Green’s role in the decoration of the settee strengthens as we turn to the ends of the seat apron, where tripartite scrollwork spins two secondary curves off a central spiral (see Fig. 5c). This triple-curve motif figures prominently throughout her illuminations, perhaps most clearly in the delicately meandering design below the T in “Take, O take those lips away,” from the opening line of act 4 of Measure for Measure by Shakespeare, one of hers and Rohlfs’s favorite writers (Fig. 9). The more modernist geometric designs carved into the ends of the seat and on the feet are likely by Rohlfs, while a symmetrical motif in the center of the apron could be the design of either husband or wife. However, its trailing rhythmic dotting appears frequently in Green’s work, such as below the ornament framing the small watercolor seascape at the bottom of “Break, break, break.”

Taken together, these comparisons make a strong case for Green having played an essential role in the ornamentation of this earliest known Rohlfs object and thus for the claim that the couple collaborated on furniture previously attributed to Rohlfs alone. This really should not be too surprising because Rohlfs and Green worked together in other creative efforts. While touring Europe in 1890, they collaborated on various drawings in the family’s travelogue and on a second dramatization of her most successful novel, The Leavenworth Case of 1878. Rohlfs would later take the lead role in a national tour of the production of that drama in 1891, which marked his return to the stage.

Rohlfs did not pursue furniture making as a profession until around 1897, after his acting career had fizzled, but even then Green contributed to his furniture designs. In January 1900, in the first article published about Rohlfs’s furniture, Charlotte Moffitt noted Green’s contributions, reporting in House Beautiful that Rohlfs’s “furniture is not turned out rapidly, for, excepting for the assistance of his wife, who is better known as Anna Katharine Green, Mr. Rohlfs does the work himself.”3 Green’s role in at least two important works is confirmed by visual analysis and archival records. Around 1898 to 1899, within two years of establishing himself as a furniture maker, Rohlfs began work on what has become his most iconic work, which he called the “Graceful Writing Set.”4 Comprising the only two objects he ever produced in any significant numbers—a fretted tall-back chair and a carved and fretted fall-front desk that swivels on a footed base (Figs. 2, 10)—the set was first published in 1900.5 Adorning the top of the desk are carved and fretted flamelike finials made of seemingly interlocking strands of oak, each actually carved from a single piece of wood. Evidence that Green contributed to the design is found on the cover of her novel Doctor Izard (1895), which shows a graphic image of a flame (Fig. 11, right) that relates closely to her illuminations and also bears an unmistakable resemblance to the design of the desk’s finials.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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