An icon of American artistry, the design of this Philadelphia side chair has been celebrated and revered since 1929. That year, three virtually identical chairs were illustrated and sold in the landmark sale, "Colonial Furniture: The Superb Collection of the Late Howard Reifsnyder" (fig. 1) and, since then, chairs of this model have been known as "Reifsnyder" chairs. This model incorporates almost all of the most expensive options available for chairs with solid splats of this period: double-volute and shell-carved crests, egg-and-dart carved shoes, compass seats with incurvated and shell-carved front rails, leaf-carved knees and claw-and-ball feet. As rounded stiles would have been costlier, the flattened stiles are the only features not illustrating the most elaborate treatment possible. A symphony of curves, this model is a supreme illustration of William Hogarth's "line of beauty" and the Queen Anne aesthetic. At the same time, the broken line of the front seat rail and use of claw-and-ball feet point to the emerging Chippendale style in 1740s Philadelphia.
The design and execution of the shell, knee and foot carving indicate that this chair was made in the late 1740s or early 1750s and possibly carved by Samuel Harding (d. 1758) or his probable protégé, Nicholas Bernard (d. 1789). As discussed by Luke Beckerdite and Alan Miller, the earliest claw-and-ball feet in Philadelphia, first documented in the city in 1743, are "underscale" with an extra knuckle in the rear talon. Several examples of case furniture dated to 1740 to 1755 display closely related feet as well as similarly rendered shells and acanthus-leaves on the knees, including a dressing table with carving attributed to Harding and a high chest, probably from the late 1740s, attributed to Bernard (fig. 2). Beckerdite describes the knee carving on a "Reifsnyder" chair as a "miniature version" of that on these case pieces, while also noting the chair's use of nearly identical knee returns. Both Harding and Bernard were among the leading carvers of their day. After this chair was made, Harding carved much of the interior architecture of the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall, and, in partnership with carver Martin Jugiez (d. 1815), Bernard fashioned some of the most renowned survivals of Philadelphia Chippendale furniture, including furniture and architectural carving for General John Cadwalader (Luke Beckerdite and Alan Miller, "A Table's Tale: Craft, Art, and Opportunity in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia," American Furniture 2004, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2004), pp. 8-11; Luke Beckerdite, "An Identity Crisis: Philadelphia and Baltimore Furniture Styles of the Mid Eighteenth Century," Shaping a National Culture: The Philadelphia Experience, 1750-1800, Catherine E. Hutchins, ed. (Winterthur, Delaware, 1994), pp. 250-263, figs. 9-21).
Close examination of surviving examples of so-called "Reifsnyder" chairs reveals that they may represent as many as five closely related sets. Distinguished by primary wood use, the design of the crest shell, the arc or spooned splat shaping and the degree to which the acanthus knee carving extends to the returns, these sets probably indicate the work of the same shop and possibly the hand of the same carver. The chair offered here, made of walnut with a spooned splat, standard crest shell and knee carving that is confined to the stock used for the legs, appears to be from the same set as a chair formerly in the Robb Collection (Israel Sack, Inc., American Antiques from Israel Sack Collection, vol. 5, pp. 1220-1221, P4161, same chair illustrated in Joseph Kindig, The Philadelphia Chair, 1685-1785 (York, Pennsylvania, 1978), no. 66 and discussed in Beckerdite 1994, op. cit.; this set may also include that illustrated in David Stockwell, Inc., advertisement, The Magazine Antiques (October 1973), p. 497). Numbered X and XVII respectively, this chair and the Robb Collection example may have originated in a large set of at least seventeen chairs. They appear to differ from the three illustrated in the Reifsnyder catalogue in their use of walnut as primary wood, as those sold in 1929 are of cherrywood. Similar details are seen on two armchairs, which may also have been made en suite with the chair offered here, or may illustrate a third set (fig. 3) (Joseph Downs, American Furniture: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods (New York, 1952), no. 30; Jack L. Lindsey, Worldly Goods: The Arts of Early Pennsylvania, 1680-1758 (Philadelphia, 1999), pp. 157, 173, fig. 201). A possible fourth set includes two side chairs with restoration to their seat-rail shells that varies subtly in the knee carving, which extends to the returns (Sotheby's, New York, The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Walter M. Jeffords, 28-29 October 2004, lots 218, 219). Another set, one of which was sold but not illustrated in the Reifsnyder sale, is known by at least four chairs (fig. 4), all of which are made of walnut, have crests embellished with variant shells (the lowermost corners are rendered with C-scrolls rather than incised triangular "ears"), arched rather than spooned splats and knee carving that extends to the returns (Christie's, New York, 18-19 January 2002, lot 367, same chair sold in the Reifsynder sale, lot 656; a pair of chairs at Winterthur Museum, one illustrated in Downs, no. 116; Sotheby's, New York, 27-28 June, 1990, lot 568; a second pair of side chairs at Winterthur, not illustrated but discussed in Downs, no. 116, may be part of one of the above sets).
While the seat frame bears painted inscriptions possibly referring to an early owner by the name of Miller in Georgetown, the chair has been among the treasures of four renowned private collections. In 1903, the chair was included in the sale of the collection of Dr. William H. Crim (c.1845-1902), a Surgeon Major in the Maryland National Guard. His Baltimore home on West Fayette Street was a "museum of rare antiques" and included relics associated with figures prominent in early American history ("Death of Dr. W. H. Crim, Prominent Baltimore Physician and Noted Collector of Antiques Suddenly Stricken," The New York Times, 16 November 1902). The chair then entered the collection of J. Herbert Johnston (b. c.1862) whose father, John Taylor Johnston (1820-1893), a railroad magnate, was the founding President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870. The younger Johnston followed his father's love of art, housing his collection in his New York home at Washington Square North and summer house in Huntington, Long Island. Through dealer Charles Woolsey Lyon, the chair was sold to Tuxedo Park resident Norvin H. Green (d. 1955), whose collection included other icons of American furniture, such as the Samuel Whitehorne block-and-shell bureau table attributed to Edmund Townsend of Newport. After its sale in 1950, the chair became part of the famed collection of Mr. and Mrs. Mitchel Taradash and, along with another Philadelphia side chair of the same era, was prominently displayed on either side of a Boston bombé desk-and-bookcase in the living room of their house in Ardsley-on-Hudson, New York (Alice Winchester, "Living with Antiques: The Home of Mr. and Mrs. Mitchel Taradash," The Magazine Antiques (January 1953), p. 44).