The Butterfly Man of New Orleans

Quite unlike Lannuier’s more architectonic works, the Butterfly Man’s cabinets resemble one produced for Stephen Girard (1750–1831) in 1796 in Philadelphia by the Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) émigrés Jean Baptiste Laurent and Charles Domballe (Fig. 3).11 Common details include flush (rather than recessed) door and side panels, a detachable cornice, rounded stiles, scalloped apron and side skirts, cabriole legs, and brass fiche hinges terminating in decorative finials.

Between 1791 and 1812, following the Haitian Revolution, the number of émigrés arriving in New Orleans from Saint-Domingue is estimated to have surpassed fifteen thousand.12 On an 1803 to 1805 visit to New Orleans, the Frenchman Charles César Robin (b. c. 1750) noted: “A fugitive from San Domingue who arrived here in New Orleans without a sou has, in three or four years, already built a house worth thirty to forty thousand francs, without counting the capital of his establishment.”13 Numerous surviving indenture contracts verify that often Saint-Dominguans were apprenticed to master cabinetmakers in the Vieux Carré,14 and so the similarity of the Butterfly Man’s work to that of Laurent and Domballe is unsurprising. For instance, the use of flush panels in the doors and sides is a construction technique that appeared in Louisiana with the arrival of émigrés from Saint-Domingue.15

While such flush panel armoires are not confined to Louisiana and the French Caribbean, their scarcity elsewhere reflects their significance to the region. Such panels appear occasionally on East Coast neoclassical rail-and-stile pieces, but were not a preferred feature. According to Louis Malfoy, characteristics of eighteenth-century armoires made in Saint-Malo, France, include flush panel doors separated by a false center stile, which is another feature of the Butterfly Man pieces.16 West Indian craftsmen may have copied Saint-Malo or other similarly made French armoires and brought their construction techniques to Louisiana. The flush panels of the Butterfly Man armoires are sometimes highlighted with bandings that suggest more typical, recessed ones (see Fig. 1).  

The facades of the Butterfly Man armoires have full-length doors featuring bookmatched panels without waist rails, and interior struts or braces dovetailed into the door frames (see Fig. 12). The frames are mitered and there are flush joints between the panels and frames. These intersections are occasionally inlaid with bellflowers or stringing, a design practice atypical in Louisiana (see Figs. 5b, 8a).

The side panels are always divided by a waist rail. Additionally, the upper and lower side panels are often made of two vertically butted and glued boards. Occasionally these boards are oriented diagonally and bonded on an angled line—probably to disguise the combination of mismatched pieces that were used in an effort to economize on wood by saving wider stock for the door panels. The use of double dovetail joints on the interiors of the side panels is found in nearly every Butterfly Man armoire. This can be easily explained. The hide glue that cabinetmakers used to bind and reinforce panels is sensitive to heat and moisture. In the lower Mississippi River valley, the hot and humid climate probably caused the glue to fail on thin-paneled joints. The double dovetail reinforced the joints and testifies to the extra care lavished on these pieces by their maker.

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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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