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What Makes A Set?

The different types of furniture in the “Napoleon” Set: three types of side chairs, an armchair, and two types of sofa.
The different types of furniture in the “Napoleon” Set: three types of side chairs, an armchair, and two types of sofa.

While the walls, floor, and lights in the Entrance Hall of the Pavilion went through a number of changes during its time as a summer home, a core group of furniture remained. The Napoleon set, a suite of French Empire style furniture consisting of two sofas, three armchairs, and four side chairs with green satin upholstery. According to family tradition, these pieces were among those purchased by George Gibbs III (museum co-founder Sarah Pell’s great uncle) from one of Napoleon’s palaces after the Battle of Waterloo and passed down over the generations. These pieces certainly catch the eye, with their light green upholstery patterned with golden bees, carving details inspired by archaeological discoveries from Pompeii and Egypt highlighted with gold leaf, and applied brass ormolu mounts. Were they originally made as a set, or are they separate pieces unified by mahogany and upholstery?

Historical inventories shed additional light on the upholstery. Those dating from 1960 onward note that these pieces were reupholstered in 1958 with fabric woven by Scalamandre to match what was being replaced, however an insurance appraisal from the Pell home in New York City made in 1921 notes that each piece had modern silk damask upholstery, meaning that what was applied in 1958 matched the replacement fabric from 1921. There is no way to know if the 1921 replacement matched the original. By removing the unifying upholstery from the equation and comparing significant design elements from the same type of object, the differences become greater than the similarities.

pavilion chairsTake the side chairs: the chair on the left has a carved wooden back splat in the shape of a lyre, an upholstered seat, and small carved flowers above saber-style carved legs with plain feet; the middle chair has an upholstered back and seat with carved fish for side and crest rails, and animal carved legs with paw feet; the right chair has an upholstered back and seat with plain side rails, decorative brass ormolu mounts on the front and crest rail, and animal carved legs with gilded claw and ball feet. Each of these elements—backs, legs, feet, carved, and applied decorations—represent different choices made by the cabinetmaker and client. While it is possible that all three styles of side chairs were ordered by the same client from the same maker, it is unlikely that they were intended for display and use in the same room, and they may not have been made by the same cabinetmaker or at the same time.

feet of chairsThe styles of feet for each of the side chairs: plain feet, carved paw feet with attention to anatomy, and a carved and gilded claw and ball foot.

Next week, we will take a closer look at the rest of the set. Stay tuned for more insight into the Pavilion Collection and updates on the exciting building restoration!