Distinguished by an old surface and a 19th-century baize covering, this serpentine card table stands as a rare survival of New York's most acclaimed Chippendale form. Though New York's Chippendale furniture is generally less well regarded than that of Boston, Newport and Philadelphia, the city's serpentine card table has long been hailed as a remarkable achievement in design. In 1962, Harold Sack asserted that the form surpassed in "artistic merit" those made during the same era in Philadelphia and New England (Harold Sack, "New York tables: Washington's choice," Antiques (Feb. 1962), p. 193). And in 1973, Morrison H. Heckscher called the form a masterpiece and the one "brilliant exception" to otherwise "uninspired" pre-1800 furniture from New York (Heckscher, pp. 974-975).
With its deeply shaped top, thick gadrooning and quintessentially New York squared ball and claw feet, this card table exemplifies the robust version of the form, known as the "Van Rensselaer" type, and contrasts with the lighter, more attenuated "Beekman" type tables as categorized by Morrison Heckscher. In addition to distinct construction methods, other defining features of the Van Rensselaer, or Type I, tables include carving on the exposed knees of the rear legs and the vertical alignment of the leg and rear talon. Such a combination of all these elements Heckscher notes, results in a "solid, powerful design." Named after an example that is said to have descended from Stephen Van Rensselaer, the Type I tables display four distinct patterns in the knee carving, which suggest the work of several carvers. This card table, with its knee embellished with acanthus leaves bunched together by a horizontal C-scroll, is one of about 6 known with this type of carving (see below). Designated "Group C" tables by Heckscher, these card tables differ from the other Van Rensselaer tables, as well as all the Beekman tables, which feature variations upon a design centered by an asymmetrical C-scroll.
In his master's thesis, Frank Levy expands upon Heckscher's study and further subdivides the Type I tables into four cabinetmaking traditions. Sharing idiosyncratic joining techniques, all the tables bearing the bunched acanthus-leaf knee carving, as well as two C-scroll decorated tables at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were made in the same shop. As several of these tables, including the MMA's Stephen Van Rensselaer table, descended in the Van Rensselaer family, Levy calls this group the "Van Rensselaer" group, although it is a sub-group of Heckscher's Type I tables of the same name (Frank M. Levy, "The Most Opulent Form: A Structural Analysis of New York Five-Legged Card Tables," Master's Thesis, University of Delaware, 1991, for the Van Rensselaer group, see pp. 44-58).
Seen on this table, identifying construction features of this group include: the rough shaping on the interior of the rails, the removal of the excess wood on the interior at the junctures of the front and side rails, the side and rear rails meeting at a right angle and originally reinforced with a glue block, the joining of the interior and exterior rear rails with three or four screws and the presence of a hidden drawer. As Levy argues, the Van Rensselaer shop is closely related to but distinct from the shop run by Marinus Willett and Jonathan Pearsee. In addition to differences in decorative options, the two shops differ in the execution of details such as the removal of excess wood from the interior corners of the front and side rails. The Willett-Pearsee tables have sharply angular cut-outs whereas the Van Rensselaer tables' cut-outs are slightly rounded. The use of such similar methods indicates close communication between the makers of the two groups-possibly through the employment of the same craftsmen or the close proximity of their shops (For a full discussion of the shops' practices, see Levy 1991, pp. 16-24, 44-58; for the Willett-Pearsee group, see also Frank M. Levy, "A maker of New York card tables identified," Antiques (May 1993), pp. 756-763).
Closely related to original examples, but surviving in far better condition, the baize covering and gilt-leather trim of this card table are probably 19th-century replacements. Two New York serpentine card tables are known to have their original 18th-century baize coverings. These coverings, on tables in a private collection and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, are composed of dark green woven wool with a light green nap (Levy 1993, p. 758; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, acc. no. 1960.132). Over time, the nap on both examples has disintegrated considerably, clearly revealing the woven structure underneath. With most of its nap intact, the baize on this card table is similar in color and composition. Similarly, the dark-green leather trim on this table relates in character to the 18th-century examples. These leather borders with gilt ornament were part of the bookbinder's craft and the Greek-key design seen on the trim of this table adorns books from the 18th and 19th centuries. The design also appears to be stamped, a process only available after the introduction of a mechanical press in the 1830s that contrasts with the hand-tooled decoration seen on the other two tables.
The known card tables that display the bunched acanthus-leaf carving on the knees consist of at least four and possibly as many as six examples. Heckscher's listing includes one at Winterthur and three with unknown locations (including this card table). In addition to the Winterthur example, Levy lists two-one at the New Jersey Historical Society and one in a private collection-which may or may not duplicate Heckscher's "location unknown" references. Another table at Chipstone has been found to be made or significantly altered at a later date.