From the Collection–John Henry Belter Sofa

Attributed to John Henry Belter (American, b. Germany, 1804–1863), Sofa, ca. 1850. Rosewood, rosewood laminate, modern velvet upholstery, 54 x 93 1/2 x 40 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Bequest of Mary Jane Rayniak in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph G. Rayniak M1987.16. Photo credit Larry Sanders.

Attributed to John Henry Belter (American, b. Germany, 1804–1863), Sofa, ca. 1850. Rosewood, rosewood laminate, modern velvet upholstery, 54 x 93 1/2 x 40 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Bequest of Mary Jane Rayniak in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph G. Rayniak M1987.16. Photo credit Larry Sanders.

I’m a Modernist. Give me George Nelson over the Herter Brothers any day.

But all my normal predilections aside, I do love this sofa in the Museum’s collection. It is positively dripping with flowers and leaves and fruit, puffed up with ornament and upholstery stuffing, and tufted on every square inch of its way-too-high-to-be-practical back.

This sofa is exactly the type of “disingenuous” factory-produced Victorian-era object that the reforming Modern designers of the early 20th century–heck, many stylish designers of today–decried as soulless.

So in the spirit of Valentine’s Day–a holiday that is also decried by cynics (me included) as soulless, mass-produced, and disingenuous–I thought I’d ignore all the star-crossed and wanton lovers in Museum paintings to point out this great red sofa that seems to embody all the over-the-top love and lust and chocolate truffles of this greeting card holiday.

This is the Valentine’s Day of furniture. A guilty pleasure we love.

Attributed to John Henry Belter (American, b. Germany, 1804–1863), Sofa, ca. 1850. Rosewood, rosewood laminate, modern velvet upholstery, 54 x 93 1/2 x 40 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Bequest of Mary Jane Rayniak in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph G. Rayniak M1987.16.

Attributed to John Henry Belter, Sofa, ca. 1850. Detail. Bequest of Mary Jane Rayniak in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph G. Rayniak, M1987.16. Photo by the author.

This sofa is attributed to the German immigrant craftsman John Henry Belter (American, 1804–1863), one of New York City’s most fashionable furniture makers. We can’t say with authority that it was his, because none of his objects are labelled and his factory records do not exist. There is a strikingly similar Belter example in the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Belter shop had over 40 woodworkers, utilizing innovative methods of bending and laminating wood to supplement highly skilled hand work like you see in all the carved details. Belter turned out massive, curving forms that were strong, lightweight, and lavishly carved in the taste of the Victorian-era. You can see in the detail at right that the lavish carved ornament on the front is not found on the back, which is a curved rosewood sheet that is lovely in its own right. (Or, to a Modernist like me, perhaps more lovely.)

Stylistically, this sofa is an example of the Rococo Revival style that was popular in the middle years of the 19th century. This style “revived” the references to nature that were popular in the 18th-century’s Rococo taste. To a stylist of the 1850s, they may have called this ornament “modern French style”, referencing the French 18th-century style of Rococo done with a little extra up-to-date Victorian “umph”. You can see “rococo” style in the fruits (like the grapes below), flowers, curving cabriole legs, and profusion of S and C shapes.

Attributed to John Henry Belter, Sofa, ca. 1850. Detail. Bequest of Mary Jane Rayniak in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph G. Rayniak, M1987.16. Photo by the author.

Detail showing cluster of grapes and patterning in the rosewood. Attributed to John Henry Belter, Sofa, ca. 1850. Detail. Bequest of Mary Jane Rayniak in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph G. Rayniak, M1987.16. Photo by the author.

Though this sofa was made in the mid-19th century in the middle of an era of greatly increased affordability for factory-produced goods, it would have been quite expensive. According to Belterfurniture.net, an existing Belter company invoice from 1855 lists a ten piece parlor set for $1,165. That’s about $26,000 in 2010 dollars, but $1,165 was also what an average worked made in about four years in the 1850s. This was still very luxurious furniture, even if it was factory-made.

Attributed to John Henry Belter, Sofa, ca. 1850. Detail. Bequest of Mary Jane Rayniak in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph G. Rayniak, M1987.16. Photo by the author.

Attributed to John Henry Belter, Sofa, ca. 1850. Detail. Bequest of Mary Jane Rayniak in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph G. Rayniak, M1987.16. Photo by the author.

In the late 19th-century reformers advocated for improvements in all parts of life–higher wages, better health standards, equality in politics and education, but also art and design changes.

Many design reformers looked at this Victorian style of furniture and claimed that it had no meaningful connection to the place where it was made or the workers that made it. Reformers offered various different models for what an alternative “good design” might be–resulting in a wave of design philosophies including the Arts & Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau. Some design reformers thought that good design should be crafted by hand (not machine), or that it should have abstract geometric ornament that did not refer to another time period, or even that as Americans we should look to Native American Indian ornament for inspiration as true to our place.

So looking back at this design 150+ years later, we of course see this not as an insult to our tastes, or a representation of oppressed workers, or a mindless adoption of watered down historic styles.

We’ve literally put it on a pedestal in a Museum and use it as a historic document. This sofa tells a specific visual story of a time and place, and yet we still enjoy arguing over the aesthetic merit of the Victorian era.

Milwaukee Art Museum gallery, lower level "American Collections" showing the Belter sofa on view. Photo by the author.

Milwaukee Art Museum lower level "American Collections" gallery showing the Belter sofa on view. Photo by the author.

Have you found yourself in that argument? Do you disagree with your children or your spouse or your mother about tassels? Do you love tufted furniture, but have friends or decorators that insist you’d be better served with something simple? Does this style remind you of your grandmother? Or do you find Modernism cold?

I find it fascinating that this conversation has lasted for 150 years!

And just like the merits of Valentine’s Day, we’ll have to agree to disagree about whether it is tasteless and soulless, and perhaps enjoy debate as we feel smug about our preference. I for one won’t be sitting at a red-heart-balloon-infested restaurant celebrating the holiday, but I may sneak a few pink foil wrapped chocolates as I turn my nose up at all you lovers out there.

And I might prefer Ray and Charles Eames, but sometimes I do want to toss a patterned pillow with tassels (or ten!) on my sofa.

Mel Buchanan is the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility includes interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.

About Mel Buchanan

Mae E. Demmer Assistant Curator of 20th c Design, Milwaukee Art Museum. Lover of museums, objects, and cilantro
This entry was posted in Art, Curatorial and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to From the Collection–John Henry Belter Sofa

  1. KDM says:

    Another thoughtful and clever blog post, Mel. This peice is sensual – and is – I have to admit, my favorite work in the Milwaukee Art Museum – KDM

  2. Jody says:

    One of my favorite memories from MAM is watching a 4 year old running across the gallery at full gallop, flinging himself on the Belter sofa and wallowing on it belly up. Officially, I was annoyed at his parents, who seemed blissfully unaware that this wasn’t ok. But personally, I totally understood the kid’s impulse!

  3. Mel Buchanan says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jody! We can’t condone the child’s behavior, of course, but after the fact with no ill effects, we can certainly giggle.

  4. Dear Mel, the problem now days is people have no idea how this furniture are made.
    Sweat, tears, blood and history are represented in this furniture. The knowledge to push the
    materie to the limit. Stainless steal people don’t like because it requires thought and evaluation.
    What is there to evaluate on stainless steal ?

  5. Mel Buchanan says:

    Interesting point, Gabriela, but I can argue the opposing view, also: This Belter sofa was made in a factory setting and mass produced. Our collection has a fantastic Modern aluminum chaise lounge that was hand-welded to an original design. I think that both give us something to evaluate.

  6. Pingback: Musical Furniture | Milwaukee Art Museum Blog

  7. Rob says:

    I love this piece and I have to say it is my favorite furniture piece in the Museum. I am quite the novice, though, so maybe it will be surpassed by something when I develop a better taste. Every time I visited the Museum I am anxious that I will go downstairs and the furniture collection will be closed or replaced by something else. I cherish the gallery every time I see it, so much so that I think the security guards think I am weird. I can understand how the child felt, in wanting to get on the sofa. While I have never had the urge to sit on any of the furniture, I have had to remind myself to refrain from touching parts of them when the textures and design seem to call out for it.

  8. Good collection of antique furniture. Really wondered to see the great collection of furniture on this site. Every image on this blog grabs my heart. Delighted to find website like this and would recommend to the people who are searching for the same..

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