STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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“Classical Splendor: Painted Furniture for a Grand Philadelphia House” traces the rise and fall of a prominent 19th century Philadelphia family through a set of custom furniture in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The back story is that in 1805, merchant William Waln and his wife, Mary, hired designer Benjamin Henry Latrobe to design their fashionable residence on the corner of Seventh and Chestnut streets (a block from Independence Hall), as well as its interior wall treatments and furnishings.
Latrobe, along with cabinetmaker John Aitken, decorative painter George Bridport and upholsterer John Rea, came up with luxurious painted and gilded furniture that copied the forms of ancient Greece and Rome. There were seven chairs, two card tables, a sideboard, a sofa and a settee.
A year after the commission, Latrobe reconfigured and refurnished the public rooms of the President’s House (not yet known as the White House) for James and Dolley Madison.
The Art Museum exhibition tells of new discoveries about the Waln house — which was demolished in 1847 — and about Latrobe’s design team. Financial troubles struck the Walns in 1821, and they were forced to sell their lavish household furnishings to pay creditors. All that’s left of the house is the furniture, a small watercolor, two fire insurance surveys and a handful of descriptions. “Classical Splendor” recaptures Latrobe’s vision for the Waln furniture, reimagining the furniture in its original context in relation to how the house was built.
And although the Madisons’ furniture in the Oval Drawing Room was destroyed in 1814, after the British set Washington DC on fire during the War of 1812, Latrobe’s drawings show that the presidential pieces were expanded versions of what he had created for the Waln house.
Latrobe’s classical inspiration went on to have a greater impact on American design. Timothy Rub, the museum’s George D. Widener Director and CEO, said in a statement: “The Waln furniture — a cornerstone of our collection of American decorative arts — survives as one of the greatest artistic triumphs of the early national period. Our extensive research and conservation provides a vivid picture of just how innovative the designs were in the their day, greatly advancing our knowledge of Latrobe’s contribution to American neoclassicism.”
Also in the press release, Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, the museum’s Montgomery-Garvan Curator of American Decorative Arts, said: “We are displaying it in a way we believe early Philadelphians would have experienced the furniture. When visitors from around the world saw the brilliant furniture in the conservation labs during its treatment, it appeared so modern in spirit that they guessed it had been made in the 20th century in Italy, London or Paris.”
Interactive kiosks throughout the exhibition invite you to explore the house, the creation of the furniture and the investigative process of the research and conservation.