Samuel Gragg (1772–1855)
Object Place: Boston, Massachusetts, United States
86.7 x 45.7 x 50.8 cm (34 1/8 x 18 x 20 in.)
Medium or Technique
Painted ash, hickory
Not On View
A bentwood chair formed of steamed members, with the curved stiles, seat rails, and front legs being one continuous member. The back is composed of five vertical bars, which curve down to form every second member of the seat. The other six bars of the seat are dovetailed to the front and back rails. There is a curved and pierced stretcher between the front legs, which are of S-form. The rear legs are strongly raked, and there are double dowel stretchers on the sides and back.
The entire chair is painted a tawny color with linear decoration in brown and tan. The stiles have pendent green leaves at the top and the central bar of the back is slightly wider than its companions and is painted with a peacock feather. Both front and back seat rails are striped in shades of brown, as is the panel on the front stretcher.
The seat rails are of heavy stock with the dovetails cut into their upper surface. They are double screwed to the continuous stile-rail, and the five back bars are screwed to the rear seat rail.
Experimentation in forms, materials, and techniques was a dominant theme in nineteenth-century American woodworking, as craftsmen and manufacturers sought to improve upon tradition. This side chair, which gives with the weight of a sitter but always returns to its original shape when unoccupied, is an early manifestation of this interest.
The chair’s maker, Samuel Gragg, received a patent for an “elastic chair” on August 31, 1808. Gragg adapted the ancient practice of bending wood with moisture and heat to create his sinuous chairs in keeping with classical Greek forms, as interpreted through the latest English pattern books by Thomas Hope, George Smith, and others. Daringly, Gragg achieved the chair’s striking compound-curve design by steaming a single piece of wood to serve as the rear upper post, or stile, seat rail, and front leg on each side. The back supports are similarly bold, as are the strongly raking rear legs, curved stretchers between the legs, and other elements that complete the elegant lines.
The decoration of the chair, probably executed by a specialist, is as fashionable as the construction is innovative. Painted a tawny color overall, the chair is accented with striping in shades of brown. The stiles have pendant green leaves at their apex, while the wider central back support is embellished with a skillfully painted, wispy peacock feather. In form and decoration, this chair represents an early manifestation of the “Fancy” style, popularized from 1790 to 1840 and characterized by attention-grabbing shapes and ornament inspired by the imagination.
This text was adapted from Ward, et al., MFA Highlights: American Decorative Arts & Sculpture (Boston, 2006) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.
Beneath the seat rail is branded: S. GRAGG / BOSTON / PATENT
Purchased by the Museum in 1961 from the dealer Harry Arons of Ansonia, Connecticut (Accession Date October 11, 1961)
Charles Hitchcock Tyler Residuary Fund