Enfilade

Display | Silk & Swan Feathers: A Luxurious 18th-Century Armchair

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on August 16, 2021

Armchair (Bergère), ca. 1770/1772 or early 1780s, Georges Jacob, walnut, painted and varnished, and beech; silk, linen, hemp, and horsehair upholstery with swan- and goose-down feather stuffing; silk trim; iron tacks and gilt-brass nails, 39 × 37 × 30 inches (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 88.DA.123).

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From the press release (12 May) for the exhibition:

Silk & Swan Feathers: A Luxurious 18th-Century Armchair
The Getty Center Museum, Los Angeles, 25 May 2021 — 31 July 2022

Curated by Charissa Bremer-David

An extraordinary 18th-century Parisian armchair that has survived nearly unaltered for over 200 years, with its original painted-wood surface and silk upholstery, will be highlighted at the Getty Center Museum starting May 25. Getty curators and conservators conducted extensive analysis of its history and construction, and they reveal their findings alongside the elegant chair in the year-long exhibition Silk & Swan Feathers: A Luxurious 18th-Century Armchair.

“Remarkably, this armchair still looks very much as it did when delivered to its first owner in the late 1700s,” says Charissa Bremer-David, curator of the exhibition. “Though the varnish on the wood has yellowed and the worn textile cover has gently faded, the finish and materials have endured without refurbishment or reupholstering. This armchair, therefore, is an important source of information about how late 18th-century French seat furniture was produced.”

Made in Paris in the early 1770s or early 1780s for an elite patron, the chair’s sumptuous appearance is striking, from its deep seat cushion stuffed with swan- and goose-down feathers to the vibrant crimson color of the silk fabric and the squares of gold leaf on its brass upholstery nails. Multiple craftsmen, including a joiner (woodworker) and an upholsterer, contributed to each facet of its construction.

It was created in the form known as bergère, the French term for a type of softly padded armchair with a lofty cushion that seemed to invite sitters to linger, rest, read, or chat. Its form developed in response to clothing fashion and notions of comfort. The receding curve of the arms could accommodate the voluminous drapery of women’s dresses and the extensive fabric of men’s knee-length coats, while the well-stuffed back and oval seat enveloped the occupants in luxury.

Marks on the armchair indicate it originally belonged to the château de Chanteloup, an important country house situated on an extensive estate in central France. It was part of a set that comprised five large armchairs, four long settees, and six smaller chairs. The group was dispersed in 1794, and the other surviving pieces no longer preserve their original appearance.

Getty conservators and scientists investigated the hidden joinery of the armchair frame and the layering of its painted surface and upholstery. This was accomplished through analysis of microscopic samples and by using imaging methods that did not disturb the original structure. An X-ray of the chairback reveals layers of upholstery materials that correspond to illustrated technical manuals of the period. Other images revealed the frame, made mostly of walnut, was put together using the traditional mortise-and-tenon joint, a method of interlocking two elements at right angles.

Also highlighted in the exhibition are four 18th-century illustrated books from the Getty Research Institute that detail the work of joiners and upholsterers, helping to put the bergère within the broader context of labor, craft, taste, and the market for furniture in France during the 1700s.

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