Painted Furniture Has Colorful Past

From Associated Press

For much of this century, people have been stripping all the old furniture they could get their hands on.

No more. Painted country pieces are the darlings of the antiques show circuit, and city pieces--neoclassical chairs in the Hepplewhite vein, for example--also are enjoying great popularity.

Along with the vogue for painted furniture has come the realization that early American homes were full of color. Not only was much of the furniture painted, but walls, too, were often covered in bright colors.


As colorful finishes on furniture and walls dulled through wear or dirt, the myth developed that 18th- and 19th century homes were drab. Modernism also contributed to the dulling-down of American decorative-arts history by emphasizing white walls and natural wood finishes.

Historians and antiques authorities have been slowly stripping away the erroneous ideas about the past for decades. “American Painted Furniture” (Clarkson Potter, $65), by Cynthia W.V. Schaffner and Susan Klein, is part of the debunking.

In their book, Schaffner and Klein tell the story of handcrafted American painted furniture from the 1790s to the 1880s, a period they refer to as the heyday of this spectacular art form.

The authors, versed in American folk art and collectors of painted furniture, consider the pieces illustrated in the book as significant as early American paintings.

“There weren’t any real art schools and not all that many fine artists in the early 19th century,” Schaffner said. “Many talented individuals became commercial painters and worked with special skill on furniture, signs and other useful objects.”

Although some of the most remarkable examples of American painted furniture are already in museums, it is still feasible to collect it and use it at home.

“This past weekend, I went to five antiques shows and found pieces starting at $300 for a simple painted Windsor chair dating from the 1820s-40s,” Schaffner said. “There is also a lot of simple, inexpensive painted furniture from the 1920s to 1950s to be found at house sales and country auctions.”

Schaffner recently bought a 1950s-era kitchen chair for $30 and a kitchen table with turned legs for $120.

Those who do find a painted piece are advised to keep the original surface.

“Cleaning is fine, and so is stabilizing paint that is flaking so it won’t fall off,” Schaffner said. “But don’t strip it and don’t repaint it. The pattern of wear is part of the aesthetic.”

These days, thanks to the popularity of painted furniture in antiques stores and the American penchant for moving, a piece from one section of the country may turn up in another. Originally, there were stylistic variations from one section to another.

In the early 19th century, for example, French gilders settled in Philadelphia, where they turned out French-style pieces ornamented with gilding, Klein said.

Later, from the 1870s on, Mennonites from Poland, Russia and Prussia settled in the Dakotas and Nebraska, bringing their tradition of grain painting on light wood with them. The Mennonites decorated large wardrobes, dowry chests, tables and sofas with these patterns, and also embellished furniture with small floral motifs from the old country.

There are early instances of the American melting pot at work, too. Fancy neoclassical furniture died out on the East Coast around 1820, but was still made in other sections, as cabinetmakers and their clients migrated and took their style preferences with them.

English cabinetmakers who settled in many parts of the country helped spread the style for painted Windsor chairs and painted English neoclassical chairs based on the designs of George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton.

Encouraged by magazine articles and books explaining the techniques, many homemakers today paint their own furniture.

But the do-it-yourself idea, too, started early in the 19th century when young girls were taught at seminaries how to paint furniture and wooden boxes with watercolors. The decorated pieces were varnished by cabinetmakers and then proudly displayed at home.