The Butterfly Man of New Orleans

May 2008 | The armoire is the most significant form of colonial French furniture made in the Americas.1 In Louisiana, armoires were crafted by immigrant cabinetmakers from the first quarter of the eighteenth century and were frequently listed in estate inventories from as early as the 1740s.2 Details of the construction and style of a group of twenty important Louisiana Creole3 examples reflect manufacture in a New Orleans workshop between 1810 and 1825.4 Local collectors have come to know the anonymous maker as the “Butterfly Man” for his signature use of the double dovetail—a bowtie-shaped interior patch also known as a butterfly or flying Dutchman—to strengthen the glued panels that comprise the side walls (see Fig. 11).5 This common reinforcement method has not been found on any other armoires made in Louisiana.

Of the twenty surviving examples of the Butterfly Man’s work, all of which are in private collections, six are inlaid with Anglo-American motifs including bellflowers, leaves and vines, barber pole stringing, and pictorial paterae depicting an eagle with stars or an urn with flowers.6 These are typical embellishments of East Coast furniture that are uncommon in Louisiana.7 Hence, the six inlaid Butterfly Man armoires, all of which are illustrated here, represent a highly sophisticated and distinctive fusion of French colonial and American Federal design.

Although the identity of the Butterfly Man has long been a mystery, recent scholarship suggests to us that the English-born cabinetmaker George Dewhurst may have been responsible for the inlay work. A lecture presented by the furniture historian Stephen P. Latta at the 2007 Winterthur Museum Furniture Forum revealed that Dewhurst, one of the best-documented inlay makers in the United States, was working in New Orleans when the armoires were made.8 Though it is not known exactly when he arrived in the city, “George Dewhurst, cabinetmaker” is first mentioned in the New Orleans newspaper Le Courrier de la Louisiane on October 1, 1817, in a list of individuals who had letters in English waiting for them at the post office.

Dewhurst is again described as a cabinetmaker, at 29 Bourbon Street, in the New Orleans city directory of 1822, where he is one of just four cabinetmakers with Anglo-American names listed. City directories indicate that the number of cabinet--ma-kers work------ing in the Vieux Carré doubled be-------tween 1811 and 1822.9 While Dewhurst was part of a larger influx of crafts------men to New Orleans, he alone has surfaced as a probable candidate to whom the Butterfly Man’s complex inlays may be attributed.

In the early nineteenth century, the French émigré cabinetmaker Honoré Lannuier (1779–1819) crafted Empire style armoires in New York City. Termed a French press in the 1810 New York price book, Lannuier’s armoire typically had “two flat panelled doors, with two panels in each” and was crowned with a broken pediment.10 An advertisement in the New Orleans Louisiana Advertiser of December 10, 1827, for “bedsteads, armours, & c—Received per brig Ivory Lord, an invoice of high post Bedsteads, Armours, & c for sale by C. D. Jordan, 35 Gravier street” not only documents the arrival of such northeastern manufactured armoires in the deep South, but offers a clue to the local use (and pronunciation) of the term armoire (see Fig. 2).

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

» View All