Benjamin Henry Latrobe and the furniture of John and Hugh Finlay


As the first president, George Washington instituted a highly orchestrated levee at his New York residence, which he then continued in Philadelphia. During these afternoon affairs, prominent men who wished to meet the president formally entered the room and were introduced by an aide. Washington stood at one end, and the guests bowed to him and then backed away to form a half circle; the president then walked around the half circle exchanging pleasantries with each guest. To accommodate the military-like ovoid formation, Washington ordered the straight rear walls of his residence on Market Street to be refashioned with bow ends.3 John Adams reluctantly continued the formal levee. Jefferson, the republican and first true resident of the President's House in Washington, happily abandoned it, preferring to host comfortable dinners and greet visitors informally and on an almost constant basis.4

Widely admired for her social suavity, Dolley Madison devised the Wednesday evening "drawing room" as a carefully contrived event open to a broad swath of both men and women. These affairs established a protocol particularly appropriate for the president of the United States, his wife, and their residence, which, built and decorated at enormous taxpayer expense, was already deemed the people's house. Weekly announcements of the Wednesday drawing rooms were made in the National Intelligencer, and anyone who had met the Madisons or had a letter of introduction was considered invited. The lack of formal invitations eliminated any sense of political hierarchy and permitted extraordinary access to the president, his wife, and the President's House.5

Since Dolley wished to host the first drawing room on New Year's Day 1810 (New Year's and the Fourth of July being the days that George and Martha Washington had established as standard for presidential visiting), there were only nine months from the time of Madison's inauguration in March 1809 to complete the overhaul. Latrobe sought approval for early improvements in April:

Over the drawing room Chimney piece, I intended my best looking glass...and over the fire place (that is to be) of the dining room my squarest Glass, to repeat the Landscape through the Center window.... Mr. [George] Bridport, the [ornamental painting] decorator to whom I have committed this business is a man of great taste and talents and the first line of his instructions is, do as Mr. and Mrs. Madison wish.6  

Much favored among Latrobe's group of artists and artisans, Bridport had completed his work in the drawing room by June.7 He had been trained as a theater designer, and by all accounts created a mesmerizing setting for the furniture.8

The Etruscan (or Grecian) style that Latrobe advocated was fashionable in London, but uncommon in the United States at the time. For Latrobe, the style was rooted in his study of line drawings of scenes from classical litera-ture by John Flaxman (1755-1826); and in 1808 he had requested that Bridport copy them for the painted decoration of the drawing room in the Philadelphia house of William and Mary Wilcocks Waln.9 Latrobe associated classical art with classical virtues and democratic political and social ideals, and he saw his furniture designs as a vehicle for transmitting virtue to the new nation.10

The Madisons' seating furniture builds on the designs Latrobe devised for the Walns. Characterized by the strong lines of the sweeping front and rear legs and the severe horizontal rails and tablet tops, the Madison chairs in Latrobe's drawings show a far more dramatic inward sweep than on the Walns' chairs (see Figs. 9, 10). The front legs of the Waln chairs are in the same plane as the front rails, until the very bottom, where they kick out slightly; according to the drawings, the Madison chair legs curved in from the plane of the front rail an amazing five inches. The stiles of the Waln chairs are not concave in a contiguous curve like those on the Madison chairs, but break in a crook from the seat rail at a totally different angle than the legs. The seat dimensions, too, are more extreme on the Madison chairs. Overall, the Madison chairs more accurately reflected the lines of the ancient Greek klismos model, although the severity of the curved legs and back necessitated stretchers.11 The drawings for the Madisons' two sofas (see Fig. 11) show that they had elegant S-shaped ends exactly like those on the Walns' sofa, but the latter's klismos-type saber legs were replaced by reverse tapered Doric column legs, referencing the Roman lekthos couch. For the Madisons' settees (of which there were four), Latrobe designed large upholstered bolster ends (see Fig. 11, left) instead of the severe acroterion-shaped ends of the Walns' small settees.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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