Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York


HoustonMarch 2012Renowned in his lifetime for his elegant designs and superior craftsmanship, Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854) remains to this day America’s most famous cabinetmaker. Opening June 24 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York—the first retrospective on Phyfe in 90 years—will serve to re-introduce this artistic and influential master craftsman to a contemporary audience. On view will be furniture produced in Phyfe’s Fulton Street workshops which once stood on the site of the former World Trade Center. The full chronological sweep of his long and distinguished career will be featured, including examples of his best-known furniture from the period 1805–20, which was influenced heavily by early English Regency design; his more opulent, monumental and archaeologically correct Grecian style of the late 1810s and 1820s, sometimes referred to as American Empire; and his sleek, minimalist late work of the 1830s and 1840s, known as the Grecian Plain style, based largely on French Restauration furniture design.

Co-organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the exhibition brings together nearly 100 works from private and public collections throughout the United States. Highlights of the exhibition include some never-before-seen documented masterpieces and furniture that has descended directly in the Phyfe family, as well as the master cabinetmaker’s own chest of woodworking tools.

“I am delighted by the collaboration between the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I was a curator for the past 20 years, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, on the upcoming Duncan Phyfe retrospective,” said MFAH director Gary Tinterow. “The exhibition celebrates the career of America’s most renowned cabinet-maker, introducing today’s audience to the luxuriant furniture that Phyfe is renowned for.

“Duncan Phyfe is one of those rare individuals who possessed the skills of an inspired designer, superb craftsman, and a brilliant entrepreneur. A Scottish-born immigrant from humble beginnings, his story exemplifies the American dream,” commented Bayou Bend Collection Curator Michael Brown.

Organized chronologically, the exhibition will present the life and work of the noted early 19th-century New York City cabinetmaker through furniture, drawings, documents, personal possessions and furniture. Portraits of his clients and contemporary depictions of New York City street scenes and domestic interiors will provide an intimate glimpse into Phyfe’s milieu.

A poor immigrant when he arrived in America, Phyfe acquired wealth and fame through hard work and exceptional talent both as a craftsman and a businessman. Throughout the first half of the 19th century he made neoclassical furniture for the social and mercantile elite of New York, Philadelphia and the American South. His personal style, characterized by superior proportions, balance, symmetry and restraint, became the local style for at least two generations in New York. Many apprentices and journeymen were exposed to this distinctive esthetic by serving a stint in the Phyfe shop or by copying the master cabinetmaker’s designs helped to create and sustain this local school of cabinetmaking. He remained the dominant figure in his trade into the 1840s and his eventual retirement in 1847 at the age of 77. Phyfe’s fame briefly faded after his passing in 1854, but was revived in the early 1900s by a passionate amateur historian, who was himself once a New York cabinetmaker, and a coterie of scholars, collectors and connoisseurs who lionized Phyfe once again. This renewed fame culminated in the first-ever monographic exhibition held in an art museum on the work of a single cabinetmaker, Furniture from the Workshop of Duncan Phyfe, which opened at the Metropolitan Museum in November of 1922.

Because Phyfe’s furniture was seldom marked yet widely imitated, it is challenging to determine with accuracy which works actually emanated from his hand or shop. The exhibition breaks new ground by matching rare bills of sale and similar documents with furniture whose history of ownership is known, thereby codifying his style over time.

A video featuring some of the techniques used in the Phyfe workshop to create his furniture masterpieces, including relief carving and turning, will be shown within the exhibition.

A magnificent catalogue, featuring scholarly text paired with fine illustrations, and written by Peter M. Kenney, Michael K. Brown, Frances F. Bretter and Matthew A. Thurlow, accompanies the exhibition. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press.

Organization and Credit
This exhibition is organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Generous funding is provided by: The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc.; Mr. and Mrs. Meredith J. Long; Bobbie and John Nau; The Vivian L. Smith Foundation; Isla and Tommy Reckling ; and Leslie and Brad Bucher.

About the MFAH
Founded in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is among the ten largest art museums in the United States. Located in the heart of Houston’s Museum District, the MFAH comprises two gallery buildings, one designed by Mies van der Rohe, the other by Rafael Moneo; an Isamu Noguchi-designed sculpture garden; two libraries, a theater and two art schools; and two nearby house museums, for American and European decorative arts. The encyclopedic collection of the MFAH numbers some 64,000 works of art, spanning antiquity to the present.

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MFAH Communications