Conservation Case Study

Refining and Reviving Elegance: 19th-Century American Furniture

Supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a 19th-century American Neoclassical sofa and Renaissance Revival settee in the Museum’s collection were recently conserved for display in the American art galleries, scheduled to reopen in the spring of 2009. American decorative arts will be integrated with paintings and sculpture throughout the galleries to create an enriched experience that highlights the multiple achievements in American art and history.

The elegant lines and restrained carving of the Neoclassical-style sofa are typical of other examples attributed to the renowned New York cabinetmaker, Duncan Phyfe (1768-1854). Although the Museum’s sofa was thought to have been made by one of Phyfe’s competitors, conservation treatment led to discoveries related to construction techniques, quality of workmanship and materials that supported a reattribution to the Phyfe workshop.

Neoclassical Sofa Before Treatment
Neoclassical Sofa After Treatment
Before Treatment
After Treatment

American, 1805. Mahogany, 36 ¾ x 79 7/8 x 30 1/8 inches. Purchase: Nelson Trust, 34-143.

The Renaissance-Revival settee was fabricated using one of the most innovative developments in mid-19th-century American furniture manufacture. The frame of the settee was formed with laminated pieces of wood which were then carved, a less costly alternative to a solid wood frame.  From the New York workshop of Charles A. Baudouine (1808-1895), the settee’s elaborately carved masks, shells, scrolls and flowers reflect the mid-19th-century interest in historic styles.

Renaissance Revival Settee Before Treatment

Renaissance Revival Settee After Treatment
Before Treatment
After Treatment

Charles A. Baudouine, American, 1808-1895, b. France, Settee, c. 1855, Rosewood,  45 1/8 x 80 5/16 x 30 5/8 inches. Bequest of Wallace C. Goffe, 50-28/1 A

The first goal of this project was to conserve the framework of each piece of furniture. Both frames had suffered damage from previous upholstery campaigns (see images). The cracks and splits in the frames were repaired using hot hide glue, a traditional adhesive which is easily reversible with water if the repairs need to be taken apart in the future. At some point, the sofa’s two center rear legs had been broken or removed. Conservators constructed and finished mahogany reproductions to resemble the originals as closely as possible.

Damage to frame caused by earlier traditional upohlstery techniquesThe wood finish of each piece was lightly cleaned with a solution of water and mild detergents to remove surface grime and residue accumulated over time. Solvents such as alcohol were avoided because they can remove or blanch the original finish which is undesirable.

The second goal was to reupholster the furniture with historically accurate fabrics. Both the sofa and settee had been reupholstered several times.  As the existing fabric was removed, conservators searched for remnants of the original fabric that might have survived or been concealed under a tack head. Unfortunately, no traces of the original fabrics were found, but art historical documentation, including surviving examples of 19th-century upholstery, manufacturing catalogues and contemporary paintings and prints led to the decision to upholster the sofa in a gold, woven stripe fabric and the settee in a large-scale floral, woven silk fabric.

Original under-upholstery reused during treatmentUnderneath the old fabric, the conservators discovered many elements of the original under-upholstery. These examples of original 19th-century techniques, such as cushions formed of layered horse hair, were retained.  Numerous broken brass nail shanks were also discovered along the tacking edge of the sofa, indicating that it originally had decorative brass nails attached.

When the new upholstery was applied, conservators used recently developed techniques that require significantly fewer tacks and staples, thus minimizing the damage to the wooden frames that can occur when using traditional upholstery techniques. These techniques included hand-sewing the under-upholstery and finish fabrics to heavy strips of archival plastic which were attached to the frames with adhesives.

Hand-sewing finish fabric to under-upholstery frameThe stunning transformation of the Neoclassical Sofa and Renaissance Revival Settee was a collaborative effort undertaken by the Museum’s Decorative Arts and Objects Conservation departments along with furniture conservation experts at Robert Mussey Associates, Inc. of Boston, who specialize in the treatment of American furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries.

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