Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, Philadelphia Museum of Art
This ADAF Lecture will take place on Zoom, click here to register for the online event.
Pier table with marble top, Baltimore, 1810-1815 Possibly made by Thomas Renshaw and painted by John Barnhart
Card Table, Baltimore, 1815-1820. Attributed to Hugh Finlay (1781-1831)
Card Table (detail), Baltimore, 1815-1820. Attributed to Hugh Finlay (1781-1831)
Cornice box, Baltimore, 1815. Made by Hugh Finlay (1781-1831) and John Finlay (1777-1851)
Cornice box (detail), Baltimore, 1815. Made by Hugh Finlay (1781-1831) and John Finlay (1777-1851)
Beginning in the early 18th century, painted decoration—“Colours and Ornaments of all Kinds'' and “the art of ornamenting, in the newest stile and taste”—proved central to North American furniture design. Indeed, painted ornamentation had been popular in both vernacular and high style furniture since the early 18th century. But by the 1790s, artisans in the mid-Atlantic region were producing a fresh, dynamic style of painted furniture inspired by the art and literature of ancient Greece. Such images as Hera and Athena seated on painted Klismos thrones began to be reimagined for early 19th century Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington interiors.
Influential designer and architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820) helped bring this archaeologically informed neoclassicism to the fashionable forefront. In 1803, he had been appointed surveyor of public buildings by President Thomas Jefferson. Consequently, he was no stranger to Washington. Subsequently, through his acquaintance with President James and Dolley Madison, Latrobe also obtained an important commission to reconfigure and redesign a suite of rooms in what was then known as the President’s House. Alas, these suites of neoclassical furniture (1809–1810) went up in flames during the British incursion into Washington during the War of 1812 and are now known only by Latrobe’s surviving drawings. Of equal consequence were the exquisite neoclassical furniture and interiors Latrobe designed for the 1808 Philadelphia home of William and Mary Waln.
Encouraged by Latrobe’s success, architects, builders, furniture makers, upholsterers and artists throughout the mid-Atlantic enthusiastically embraced the new Greco style, giving rise to settings deemed appropriately reflective of Federal America’s democratic aspirations. Important practitioners included Baltimore’s John Finlay (1777–1851) and Hugh Finlay (1781–1830), whose imaginative Grecian-inspired painted furniture found its way into the White House as well as homes throughout the east coast and as far afield as Europe.
In her presentation to the Forum, Alexandra Kirtley will share exciting new research and a rich assortment of images to illustrate the genesis of these extraordinary neo-Grecian painted furniture styles and designs.
Alexandra Kirtley graduated from Hamilton College, majoring in art history, before earning a master’s degree from the University of Delaware’s Winterthur program. She served as a research assistant at the Henry Francis du Point Winterthur Museum prior to moving to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she has held increasingly responsible curatorial positions. Today, Ms Kirtley is the Montgomery-Garvan Curator of American Decorative Arts for the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The author of acclaimed books focusing on her museum’s rich holdings of Philadelphia decorative arts, Ms Kirtley is also a frequent contributor to Chipstone’s American Furniture and has authored a number of articles for The Magazine Antiques. Her exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art include “Art in Revolutionary Philadelphia” in 2011 and “Classical Splendor: Painted Furniture for a Grand Philadelphia House” (with Peggy A. Olley) in 2017. Ms Kirtley serves on the boards of The Andalusia Foundation; the Curatorial Advisory Board to the Commission on Art, United States Senate; The Decorative Arts Trust; and the Delaware Historical Society. The American Decorative Arts Forum has been fortunate to have Ms Kirtley address us on a number of topics, most recently in December 2014 when she presented “Dressing Philadelphia’s Furniture: Upholstered, Covered and Hung.”