Adorned with raised shells that sit atop scrolled strapwork, this chair and the example from the same set in the following lot are among only a few to survive with such ornately carved crests and stand as rare and luxurious examples of eighteenth-century Boston seating furniture. The chairs have double crook stiles, splats with vibrant veneers, ogee-shaped shoes, compass seats, carved knees and ball-and-claw feet, all features that would have made this set both expensive and fashionable in the years before the mid-century. Their desirability at the time is evident by their commission for a prominent New York family, revealing the stature and reputation of Boston chairmakers of the period. Surviving in excellent condition with a provenance in the Van Cortlandt and Van Rensselaer families, these chairs are just as desirable today.
The chairs are two of a set of at least ten, of which three others are known or published. One is in the collection of Winterthur Museum (fig. 1), a second was advertised by John Walton in 1954 and a third with the identical family provenance as the two offered here remains in the collection of the New Jersey Historical Society (Nancy E. Richards and Nancy Goyne Evans, New England Furniture at Winterthur: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods (Winterthur, DE, 1997), pp. 50-51, cat. 27; John Walton, Inc., advertisement, The Magazine Antiques (August 1954), p. 80). The Winterthur example does not appear to have any family history, but that illustrated by Walton was said to have descended in the Van Rensselaer family. Since the two offered here bear partial handwritten labels reading Van Renssel and were most likely owned by Van Rensselaers during the nineteenth century, these family histories corroborate each other. Two additional armchairs at Winterthur Museum are thought to have been made in New York to complement the Boston set just a few years after the originals were made. Greater in size with red gum rather than maple slip seats and carving by a different hand, the armchairs are indicative of New York craftsmanship and vary slightly from the original set. The provenance of these armchairs further supports the Van Cortlandt ownership of the chairs offered here. When published by Joseph Downs in 1952, the chairs were reportedly from the Stephanus Van Cortlandt house in Manhattan and the likely first owner of the set, John Van Cortlandt (1721-1786), was a grandson, son and father of men named Stephanus or Stephen Van Cortlandt, indicating the same family origin for the entire set (Joseph Downs, American Furniture: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods (New York, 1952), cat. 26; Leigh Keno, Joan Barzilay Freund, and Alan Miller, "The Very Pink of the Mode: Boston Georgian Chairs, Their Export, and Their Influence," American Furniture 1996, ed. Luke Beckerdite (Milwaukee, WI, 1996), pp. 289-291, figs. 38, 39). Only three other sets of contemporary Boston chairs with raised-shell crests are known: the renowned Apthorp set (see below), a set represented by two chairs, one of which descended in the Schuyler family and a set represented by a single chair at Winterthur Museum (Bernard and S. Dean Levy, Inc., "Opulence and Splendor": The New York Chair, 1690-1830 (New York, 1984), p. 5; Israel Sack, Inc., American Antiques from Israel Sack, Inc., vol. 7 (Washington D.C., 1957-1992), p. 2007; Downs, cat. 106).
Fashioned in high relief with naturalistic flow, the carving on the chairs' crests indicate the assured hand of John Welch (1711-1789), Boston's most prominent furniture carver of the eighteenth century. The two clusters of leaves and scrolls directly above the splat are each accented by a bulbous lobe, or cabochon, emanating from the base, a feature seen on other carving attributed to Welch, such as the desk-and-bookcase in fig. 2 and a tall-case clock made for Henry Bromfield (Keno et al., pp. 274, 284-285, 289, figs. 7-8, 28-29). Celebrated for his work on the Old State House and ornate frames for John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), Welch is also credited with introducing the raised-shell crest design through his work on the set of chairs made for Charles Apthorp (1698-1758). Made in about 1735, the Apthorp chairs are distinguished by their imbricated (fish-scale carved) strapwork and embryonic ball-and-claw feet and represent the earliest manifestations of the Boston Georgian chair. As described by Leigh Keno, Joan Barzilay and Alan Miller, the cabochon-accented clusters and low-relief acanthus-leaf carving seen on the Van Cortlandt set (illustrated by the chairs offered here) "reveal that Welch had refined many of the details he had introduced on crests of the Apthorp chairs, without simplifying them" (Keno et al., p. 289). In addition, the Van Cortlandt set may have been made in the same shop as the Apthorp chairs as they both demonstrate the practices of a refined Boston shop: Laminated stiles, a splat veneered with highly grained walnut, a shoe integral to the rear seat rail and two-part rear side returns. Although based on the Apthorp model and shipped to New York, the Van Cortlandt set is not an example of the extensive venture cargo trade of Boston merchants at this time. Their elaborate design, use of veneer and superior workmanship would have made them expensive items that were specially commissioned for a well-to-do client. For more on Welch, see Luke Beckerdite, "Carving Practices in Eighteenth-Century Boston," Old-Time New England: New England Furniture, Essays in Memory of Benno M. Forman, vol. 72 (Boston, 1987), pp. 142-160.
THE VAN CORTLANDT AND VAN RENSSELAER FAMILIES
The chairs were very likely part of a set that furnished the fashionable New York City townhouse of John Van Cortlandt (1721-1786) and his wife, Hester Bayard (1730-1808). In 1925, they were owned by Mrs. Sarah Van Rensselaer (ne Sarah Jauncey Schuyler) (1838-1925) along with a third example from the same set. The third example was given at her request to the Newark Museum (later transferred to the New Jersey Historical Society) and in a letter from the executors of her estate to the Museum, she is quoted as recording that the chair "came from John Van Cortlandt's home, Broadway, New York, where the Trinity Bldgs. now stand" (Letter, Clarence Schuyler and Alonzo Church to Newark Museum, September 18, 1925).
John Van Cortlandt was born into one of colonial New York's most prominent families. His grandfather, Stephanus Van Cortlandt (1643-1700) was a leading figure in seventeenth-century New York City and held numerous military, political and civic positions, including Chief Justice of the Province, Mayor of New York City and Lord of Van Cortlandt Manor. A successful merchant, he acquired vast tracts of land, including 800 acres in New Jersey where many of his descendants lived. He married Gertrude Schuyler in 1670 and his sister, Maria, married Jeremiah Van Rensselaer, just two of numerous intermarriages among these three families that would continue over the following centuries. Stephanus' son, Stephen (1685-c.1766) inherited a lot in New York City and land in New Jersey from his father and he moved to Second River (later Belleville, now part of Newark) in Essex County, New Jersey, where the last family owner of the chairs was born. While this Stephen could have ordered the chairs, they were probably made for his third son, John and his wife, Hester Bayard. The couple married in 1749, around the time the chairs were made, and the set may have been ordered as a wedding gift or for the furnishing of a new home. During the years leading up to the Revolution and during the War itself, John Van Cortlandt was active in the political efforts of the patriot cause. He was a member of the Provisional War Committee, elected Deputy to the Provincial Congress, and served in the second, third and fourth Provincial Congresses. After his death, his sons advertised the sale of his "pleasantly situated Dwelling House, in Broadway, adjoining Trinity Church yard," the same residence described as the early home of the chairs by their last family owner, Sarah (Schuyler) Van Rensselaer. The house narrowly escaped burning down in September 1776 when many of the buildings south of the Van Cortlandt townhouse, including Trinity Church, were destroyed by fire. Previously been occupied by Jacobus Van Cortlandt (1658-1739), Stephanus' brother and John's great uncle, the house remained in the family until 1791. The house could very well be the edifice pictured to the right of Trinity Church in fig. 4. Among John's business pursuits was the operation of a sugar house located on the northwest corner of Trinity Churchyard and as depicted in Francis Maerschalck's 1755 map of lower Manhattan, the sugar house would have been directly behind this lot (see Louis Effingham De Forest, The Van Cortlandt Family (New York, c.1930), pp. 8-9, 18-22; Edward Floyd De Lancey, Origin and History of Manors of the Province of New York and in the County of Westchester (New York, 1886), pp. 126-132; C.G. Hine, Woodside, The North End of Newark, NJ (1909), p. 55). John Van Cortlandt also had a residence in Belleville and as the chairs' early twentieth-century owner lived in Belleville, it is likely that they descended along the lines of his descendants who lived in that town (fig. 5). His surviving c.1760 day book indicates that he conducted considerable business of importing and trading goods from his Belleville estate (John Wilson Taylor and Eva Mills (Lee) Taylor, Montross: A Family History (Staunton, VA, 1958), pp. 18-19).
John's son Stephen Van Cortlandt (1750-1839) lived in a home in Belleville known for many years as the "Van Cortlandt House," which may have been built by his father or grandfather. The house was located on the southerly part of the village and passed down through the generations to Stephen Van Cortlandt Van Rensselaer (1836-1885), the husband of Sarah (Schuyler) Van Rensselaer (Joseph Fulford Folsom, ed., The Municipalities of Essex County New Jersey 1666-1924, vol. II (New York, 1925), p. 666). It is very likely that the chairs followed the same path of ownership and stood in this house for much of the nineteenth century and perhaps the latter part of the eighteenth. Destroyed by fire in 1878, the house was described in 1909:
The house was after the pattern of those built by the Dutch farmers at an early day. A broad hall ran through the centre, at either end were heavy doors, divided horizontally, so that only one-half need be opened at a time and thus leave the occupant free to talk with a caller without intrusion. A broad garden extended from the road to the house, a spacious barn was nearby, while orchards of rare apples and pears extended on either side and on the opposite side of the road was another orchard of fruit. (Hine, p. 57)
In this house, Stephen's daughter, Elizabeth (1787-1868), met her future husband John Van Rensselaer (1784-1870), who settled in Belleville and the couple probably inherited the chairs from her father (Hine, pp. 55-57). However, John Van Rensselaer was also a grandchild of John Van Cortlandt and the chairs could have passed to him through his mother, Catherine Van Cortlandt (1754-1785), the first wife of James Van Rensselaer (1747-1827). Both Elizabeth and John outlived their son, James Van Rensselaer (1811-1840), so it is likely that the chairs passed directly to their grandson, Stephen Van Cortlandt Van Rensselaer.
Stephen Van Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, the husband of the last family owner of the chairs, was born in Belleville and after graduating from Rutgers College in 1854 became a prominent lawyer in Newark. After serving as a Major during the American Civil War, he returned to Newark where worked for the Equitable Life Insurance Company and was active in local politics (William H. Shaw, comp., History of Essex and Hudson Counties, New Jersey, vol. II (Philadelphia, 1884), pp. 286-287). In 1858, he married Sarah Jauncey Schuyler, whose ancestors in the Schuyler line had also long lived in Belleville, and their only child died young (Cuyler Reynolds, Hudson-Mohawk Genealogical and Family Memoirs, vol. I (New York, 1911), p. 41; Cuyler Reynolds, Genealogical and Family History of Southern New York and the Hudson River Valley , vol. III (New York, 1914), p. 1164); Florence Van Rensselaer, The Livingston Family in America (New York, 1949), pp.312, 319-320). After her husband's death, Sarah moved to nearby Arlington where she was living at the time of her death in 1925. She allowed Alonzo Church (b. 1870), an executor of her estate, to select a few items from her possessions and he chose books and three pieces of furniture, including these two chairs. He passed them on to his sister, Mary Robbins Church (1869-1939), who bequeathed them to the New Jersey Historical Society (Letter, Clarence Schuyler to Robert M. Lunny, Director of the New Jersey Historical Society, March 13, 1966).
Christie's gratefully acknowledges the scholarship of Martha H. Willoughby.