With their overtly classical form and richly figured veneers, these chairs were inspired by the classical revival that predominated American design in the early nineteenth century. While they may have been derived from the pattern books of the English Regency, particulaly Thomas Hope's Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (London, 1807) or designs from the French Restauration, the "gondola" form had become popular in New York among cabinetmakers and their patrons by the third decade of the century.
A set of nearly identical chairs thought by family tradition to have been ordered in 1837 from Duncan Phyfe (w.1792-1847) by Samuel A. Foot, a New York lawyer, are illustrated in Nancy McClelland, Duncan Phyfe and The English Regency: 1795-1830 (New York, 1939), p.273, plate 260. These chairs, currently in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, retain their original crimson mohair coverings decorated with white Empire motifs, and provide a conception of the quality and embellishment of the upholstery that may have covered the Van Rensselaer suite (see Tracy, 19th-Century America: Furniture and Decorative Arts (New York, 1970), entry 79). Joseph Meeks & Sons, competitors of the Phyfe workshop advertised a similar model in their 1833 broadside illustrated in Davidson and Stillinger, The American Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 1985), p.164.
THE VAN RENSSELAER FAMILY PROVENANCE
Like the armchairs offered in lot 229, these chairs were made for either Stephen III or Stephen IV Van Rensselaer. Both are pictured in the late nineteenth-century photograph of the Manor house dining room illustrated as figure 1. In 1785, Stephen III and his wife of two years, Margaret Schuyler (1758-1801) moved into the newly rebuilt family Manor house (figure 2). The well-known entry hall featuring early Georgian interior architecture and neoclassical wallpaper from England is currently installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Davidson and Stillinger, p.52-53). With his first wife Stephen III had three children but after her early death he remarried Cornelia Paterson (1780-1844) with whom he had nine children.
Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, the first son of Margaret Schuyler and Stephen III, inherited and lived in his father's Manor house. However, he and his wife Harriet Bayard (1799-1875), married in 1817 and lived in their own house for many years before the patriarch of the family died. In 1816-18 Stephen III built a town house for his son on North Market Street, in close proximity to his own Manor (see watercolor of Entrance of the Canal into the Hudson at Albany, painted in 1823 and illustrated in Kenny, Honor Lannuier: Cabinetmaker from Paris (New York, 1998), p.116 (Stephen Van Rensselaer IV's townhouse can be seen in the far left background). This house, attributed to Philip Hooker (1766-1836) and with an unusual elliptical-ended drawing room, was eventually decorated in the classical taste (for more on Philip Hooker see, Douglas Bucher, A Neat Plain Modern Sile: Philip Hooker and his Contemporaries, 1796-1836 (Amherst, 1993).
Stephen and Harriet Van Renssealer or either of their parents may have commissioned this set of dining chairs; like the elder Van Rensselaer, William Bayard (1761-1826), a successful New York merchant, was an important patron of Phyfe, Lannuier, Brouwers, and other New York craftsmen (Kenny, p.105-113).
Whether the chairs were commissioned for the parents or the children, the photograph in figure 1 demonstrates that the dining chairs remained in the Manor house until at least the late nineteenth century. Stephen IV died in 1839 and with him the Van Rensselaer patroonship; the "anti-rent" rebellions coupled with the general Jacksonian displacement of the landed gentry ended this lifestyle. While still occupied by the family for some time, the Manor substantially renovated in 1843 by the architect Richard Upjohn, still stands today but is very much altered from its original state. Its interiors and furnishings were dispersed among the many Van Rensselaer heirs. According to family tradition, the property in lots 229 to 240 have been passed down through the Justine Van Rensselaer Townsend (1828-1912) line and as such, illustrate the changing tastes of the family over time.