"The dramatic dolphin-ended sofas made in New York and Philadelphia are among the most scintillating pieces of early nineteenth-century American seating furniture, and a distinctly American expression" (Wendy A. Cooper, Classical Taste in America (Baltimore, 1993) p. 150). The rare combination of carved dolphins and spreadwing eagles on this sofa is an elaborate and sophisticated survival of New York's Classical style. At least five related sofas with similar twist-bodied dolphins forming the arm supports and front legs are known. This sofa most closely relates to one in the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Marshall B. Davidson and Elizabeth Stillinger, The American Wing: Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 1985), pp.158-9, fig. 246). These two sofas display similarly carved blunt-nose dolphins and gilt leaf carving extending across the front seat rail. The present lot is distinguished by its carved crest rail that may have been influenced by Thomas Sheraton's The Cabinet Directory (London, 1803), p. 47, in which similarly positioned eagles adorn the crest of a chair (fig. 1). For a Philadelphia representation of the form with both the dolphin and eagle carved sofa ornament see Sotheby's, New York, 4 October 2007, lot 157. For other related sofas see: Christie's, New York, 8 October 2004, as lot 100 and now in the Westervelt Company Collection. An example of a New York dolphin sofa is in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (http://www.dia.org). Hirschl & Adler Galleries illustrated an example in Stuart and Elizabeth Feld's exhibition The World of Duncan Phyfe: The Arts of New York, 1800-1847 (New York, 2011) pp. 66-67, fig. 29 and a final related example is in the White House illustrated in Betty Monkman's The White House: Its Furnishings and First Families (New York, 2000), p. 245.
Rich with symbolic meaning, the dolphin and the eagle motifs were drawn from the designs of antiquity yet also had contemporary references in the early nineteenth century. In an American context, these motifs were bold expressions of the country's new-found confidence after the War of 1812 and such references to ancient societies supported the sense that the young republic was destined for similar greatness. The dolphin motif also alluded to Lord Nelson's maritime defeat of Napoleon and at the same time, had associations with the dauphin, the title of the heir apparent to the King of France. Although this title was dissolved with the creation of the French Republic in 1791, the dolphin continued to appear in French furniture designs in the nineteenth century (Elizabeth and Stuart Feld, The World of Duncan Phyfe: The Arts of New York, 1800-1847 (New York, 2011), p. 67). The three dimensional spreadwing eagles perched above the carved crest rail are drawn from the Roman vocabulary and simultaneously refer to the newly created American republic.