Austere in appearance save for their richly figured veneers, these chairs were inspired by the Classical revival that predominated American design in the early nineteenth century. Belonging to the final phase of Classicism, known at the time as 'Grecian Plain style,' this pair closely relates to the French furniture of the Restauration, with its more restrained appearance and architectural vocabulary. Phyfe utilized many characteristics of this refined style, including the Grecian scrolls with affixed, slightly convex discs terminating the arms of the present lot. These discs, found on many of Phyfe's pier tables and sideboards of the period, likely derived from the winged discs used in Egyptian symbolism and the powerful coved cornices on their temples (Peter M. Kenny and Michael K. Brown, Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York (New Haven, 2011), p. 95).
The Van Rensselaer Family Provenance
These chairs were made for either Stephen III (1764-1847) or Stephen IV (1789-1868) Van Rensselaer. They appear to be those pictured in a photograph of the dining room of the Van Rensselaer Manor from the late nineteenth century (figure 1). The eighth "patroon" of Rensselaerwyck, and the largest landowner in New York, Stephen Van Rensselaer III was a federalist, philanthropist, soldier and dedicated supporter of the economic development of his state. Descending from Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, whose patroonship was first granted by the Dutch administration in 1637, Stephen managed and increased his vast properties while participating in political and military affairs for over four decades. Serving in both the New York Assembly and State Senate, he also was Lieutenant-Governor from 1795-1801. Appointed Major-General in the state militia in the 1780s, he was later decorated as the commander of the American troops on the western front in the War of 1812. Also President of the Eerie and Champlain canal boards and a staunch supporter of education, he was a Regent of the University of the State of New York and founder of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
In 1785, Stephen III and his first wife Margaret Schuyler (1758-1801) moved into the newly rebuilt family Manor house, the well-known entry hall of which features early Georgian interior architecture and neoclassical wallpaper from England, and is currently installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Marshall B. Davidson and Elizabeth Stillinger, The American Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 1985), pp. 52-53).
Stephen Van Rensselaer IV later inherited and lived in his father's Manor house. He and his wife Harriet Bayard (1799-1875) married in 1817 and lived in their own house for many years before moving into the Van Rennselaer Manor house upon the death of his father. In 1816-18 Stephen III built a townhouse for his son on North Market Street, in close proximity to his own Manor, which may have occasioned the commission of these chairs. This house, attributed to Philip Hooker (1766-1836) and with an unusual elliptical-ended drawing room, was eventually decorated in the classical taste with other pieces by Phyfe and his contemporaries, including Charles Honoré Lannuier (1779-1819) (Peter M. Kenny, Frances F. Bretter, and Ulrich Leben, Honoré Lannuier: Cabinetmaker from Paris (New York, 1998), pp. 105-113).
The chairs were removed from the Van Rensselaer manor in 1893 when William Bayard Van Rensselaer (1856-1909), grandson of Stephen and Harriet, had the home razed and are pictured in a photograph of about 1900 of Bayard Van Rensselaer's newly constructed town house at 385 State Street in Albany.
A nearly identical pair of chairs with an additional carved scroll above each foot that also descended from Stephen Van Rensselaer III and IV was sold at Sotheby's, New York, The Collection of the Late Berry B. Tracy, 1 February 1985, lot 779, and remains in the Westervelt Collection.