One of the challenges in designing the interior of Rienzi’s Foyer has been that the room is asymmetrical, with sharp bend midway down the hall. In order to preserve the look of an eighteenth century room, we sought to create a balanced hallway featuring furniture and paintings from the Neoclassical era.
The Foyer has traditionally featured a pair of gilded pier tables, one of the best examples of Neoclassical design in Rienzi’s collection. Just as they are now positioned in the foyer, these elliptical tables, from about 1770, were meant to be placed with their backs to the wall of a long gallery or hallway. Although the maker is unknown, the design is characteristic of those by famous Neoclassical furniture makers like Robert Adam and John Linnell – a light frame and long, thin, straight legs, swags under the skirt carved to imitate drapery, and a wooden inlay pattern with a central shell design on the top. Each table stands along the wall with perfect posture, reminding us of the tenets of classical proportion.
Flanking the central pier table, are a pair of gilded shield back chairs. (These were previously shown in the Drawing Room where more examples of furniture from this period are on view.) The pair also features strong elements of Neoclassicism with long tapered legs in a twisted reed motif. When seen by candle light, the glimmer of gilded furniture like these would illuminate a mid-eighteenth century room.
Our most exciting addition to the foyer is a Neoclassical painting, Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus by Angelica Kauffman from 1774. You might recognize her as the frontispiece for the recent MFAH exhibition Antiquity Revived; she was also exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1774 and was previously hanging in Rienzi’s Breakfast room. Until her next engagement, however, Ariadne’s home is the central wall of Rienzi’s foyer. We are delighted to be able to show the painting where it can be well seen by visitors. The subject features one of the most famous heroines of classical mythology, Ariadne, who helped the legendary Greek hero Theseus escape the labyrinth of the Minotaur. In the painting, a heartbroken Ariadne is shown reclining on a couch in total despair, after discovering that her lover has abandoned her. (Above her is a tiny ship on the horizon – Theseus as he makes a clean break.)
A second pair of lovers hangs across the hall, Hero and Leander by Richard Cosway from ca. 1790. This marvelous painting is one of a series that Cosway made from the story. We are pleased to include it in the foyer after a long stay in the museum’s Conservation department, where the wood panel and original gilt wood frame were repaired.
Continuing the Neoclassical design theme are beautiful pieces of decorative arts, including a Bluejohn urn and candelabrum, cut glass vases, and a stunning pair of glass and ormolu candelabra attributed to William Parker, “Glass Manufacturer to the Prince of Wales,” from about 1785.