Anna Katharine Green and Charles Rohlfs: Artistic collaborators

A monumental canopied bed by Rohlfs also featured carved motifs that closely resemble graphic elements from the cover of a book by Green. Although its whereabouts is unknown today, the bed descended through the Rohlfs family and is shown in the period photograph in Figure 12. The panels of carved wildflowers recall the sinuous tall-stemmed ones on the cover of Green’s Lost Man’s Lane, published in 1898 (Fig. 11, left). This cover graphic, expressing an elegant femininity that suggests she designed it, reinforces our understanding of Green’s contributions to motifs on Rohlfs’s decorative art. Inscribed on the back of the photograph are the model number “32,” the price “$350” (the highest documented price for a Rohlfs object), and “Anna K Rohlfs,” underscoring her connection to the bed. Michael James has suggested that it was made for Green,6 but given that it was exhibited by Rohlfs at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, and that the price suggests that it was meant for sale, it seems more likely that the notation indicates that the bed was designed with her input, and not that it was a singular piece made for her.

Among the most exquisite of all Rohlfs objects is the desk chair in Figure 4, made around 1898 or 1899. Its design is radical and the carving sublime. James, who labeled it a “Ladies’ Desk Chair,” suggested that it too was designed by Rohlfs for his wife,7 but I believe she collaborated with him on the design, and I have not found any evidence to suggest that this work of sculptural furniture was intended particularly for ladies. A sepia photograph of the chair in the Rohlfs family archive is inscribed in pencil on the back, “15/Desk Chair/Anna K. Rohlfs,” while the chair itself bears a Rohlfs workshop paper label inscribed “#4 Carved Desk Chair.” The presence of model numbers on the photograph and the label (why “4” in one place and “15” in the other has not been determined) suggests that the chair was intended for sale, and nowhere is it specifically denoted as made for Green. In fact, her name as given in the inscription on this photograph and on the one of the chair previously discussed is not one by which she is otherwise ever referred to—not in letters, diaries, or other communications as a wife, mother, or author—and almost certainly indicates her partnership with her husband in the design of these pieces of furniture. The carving on the chair back, representing a magnification of the cellular structure of oak, may reflect her mystery writer’s interest in science, for she was one of the very first writers to employ scientific evidence as a crucial part of her murder mysteries and courtroom dramas.

Charlotte Moffitt’s article in House Beautiful illustrated a “coal-box,” or “Coal Hod,” as Rohlfs referred to it (Fig. 13).8 The swirling scrolls that envelop the hinges and handle on the lid float almost carelessly across the oak surface. Perhaps the ornament was an afterthought, something Rohlfs added as an embellishment after conceiving the overall structure, without attending to its lack of integration with the carved legs and stretchers below. Once again, however, the decoration is similar to Green’s illuminations in “Songs from the Poets.” Moreover, the disconnection of the ornamental carving from the whole is reminiscent of that on the settee discussed earlier and may be an indicator of her participation. For a later, 1901, example of the coal hod, Rohlfs created an exquisitly carved motif that is much better integrated with the form.9

I have found little evidence for Green’s involvement in Rohlfs’s designs after 1900. But in all their endeavors they shared a lifelong commitment to each other and a love of art and design, as the works illustrated and discussed here so clearly demonstrate.

1 Entry dated March 20, 1887, in the diary kept by Charles Rohlfs and Anna Katharine Green for their children Rosamond and Sterling Rohlfs, Charles Rohlfs Papers, Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Library, Delaware.
2 Rohlfs pictured the settee in a drawing entitled “Corner in the study of Ann[a] Kath[a]rine Green” of c. 1888, which is illustrated in Joseph Cunningham, “Conversations in western New York: Charles Rohlfs and Gustav Stickley,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 178, no. 5 (May 2008), p. 122, Fig. 6.
3 Charlotte Moffitt, “The Rohlfs Furniture,” House Beautiful, vol. 7, no. 2 (January 1900), p. 82.
4 Quoted in Will M. Clemens, “A New Art and a New Artist,” Puritan, vol. 5 (August 1900), p. 592. Rohlfs also referred to the desk as a “Swinging Writing-Desk” and the chair as a “Hall-Chair” in Moffitt, “The Rohlfs Furniture,” pp. 83 and 85, respectively; he referred to the latter as simply “Chair” in “Furniture: Designed and Made by Charles Rohlfs,” Art Education, vol. 7 (January 1901), p. 226.
5 Moffitt, “The Rohlfs Furniture,” pp. 83 and 85; and Lola J. Diffin, “Artistic Designing of House Furniture,” Buffalo Courier, April 22, 1900, p. 5.
6 Michael L. James, Drama in Design: The Life and Craft of Charles Rohlfs (Burchfield Art Center, Buffalo State College, Buffalo, 1994), p. 63.
7 Ibid., p. 67.
8 Moffitt, “The Rohlfs Furniture,” p. 81.
9 Illustrated in Joseph Cunningham, The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs (Yale University Press, New Haven, and American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation, New York, 2008), p. 90.

JOSEPH CUNNINGHAM, the curator of the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation in New York, is organizing a traveling exhibition entitled The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs, opening at the Milwaukee Art Museum next year, and he is the author of the accompanying monograph.

 

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[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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