The Butterfly Man of New Orleans

Another key feature of the group is the detachable cornice joined to the case by two tenons that rise from the top front rail of the armoire.17 Rounded front stiles that soften the facade are carried up into the cornices, which are also characterized by rounded corners. A classic spurred scalloped skirt adorns the lower register of each armoire. On at least two the front apron is cut from the exact same template (Figs. 1, 5), further evidence that the group was made in the same workshop.18 All of the side skirts have a spurred scallop with a central arch, a design element that is unique to this group (see Fig. 4b). Finally, there is a small notch near the knee of each of the cabriole legs.

The interiors of the Butterfly Man armoires are finely appointed. They generally include an interior belt of three drawers with two shelves above and one below, although the one in Figure 5 has a second belt of two drawers at the bottom (see Fig. 5d). Two types of patterns occur on the skirts of the drawer belts—a simple gentle swag or a scallop that mimics the case’s skirt. Most of the armoires are constructed with a six-panel back with pinned (or pegged) joints. Back panels and the bottoms of interior drawers feature tongue-and-groove construction, and the dovetails of the drawers are small and precisely made. The edges of the four shelves are usually scored with two lines referred to as a scored bead. By comparison, the interior of the armoire made by Laurent and Domballe is roughly finished.

The Butterfly Man armoires incorporate specific combinations of materials. Mahogany is used in the more elaborate pieces, though cherry and walnut also served as primary woods. Secondary woods used to construct the cornice, interior, and back panels include poplar, cypress, and, occasionally, walnut. Each is fitted with brass hardware that includes exposed fiche hinges, escutcheons, pressed neoclassical drawer pulls, and a French lock (see Fig. 5c). The hinges and escutcheons were long thought to be of French manufacture, despite the fact that most French provincial hinges are made of handwrought iron known as fer forgé. In fact, the majority of the brass hardware on the Butterfly Man armoires was likely ordered out of widely distributed metalware trade catalogues from firms in Birmingham, England. Several such catalogues in the library at the Winterthur Museum contain illustrations of hardware of the exact sort used on Louisiana armoires (see Figs. 6, 7). In the catalogues, fiche hinges are called “French hinges,” confirming the origin of this particular variety. Beyond what was ordered from England, the nineteenth-century New Orleans brass foundry of Ives and Bass or other American firms may have supplied some materials. Finally, handmade rosehead nails are used throughout the armoires, confirming manufacture in the early nineteenth century.

While characteristics of style, construction, and materials have established the Butterfly Man’s oeuvre, they do not confirm his identity. However, Latta’s investigation of Dewhurst may hold the key to identifying the person responsible for the decorative work on the six inlaid examples. George Dewhurst and his father, John (b. c. 1749), both born in England, were in business in Boston as Dewhurst and Son from 1802 to 1809. Tax records identify them as cabinetmakers between 1802 and 1807, but in 1808 and 1809 they were explicitly called “string makers,” a term for inlay specialists.19

Latta discovered that George Dewhurst moved from Boston to Baltimore to Lexington, Kentucky, to New Orleans in the early nineteenth century in pursuit of markets for his work.20 He is known to have provided inlays to the Baltimore merchant William Vance (w. 1806–1813), who advertised “banding, stringing, and other ornaments” in Baltimore’s American and Commercial Daily Advertiser on October 18, 1806.21 Perhaps inlaid furniture was becoming less novel on the East Coast and the burgeoning community of New Orleans represented an ideal location for Dewhurst to carry on his enterprise, prompting him to settle in the city by 1817.

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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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