The Bellangé Chair from President Monroe's White House

Written by: Patrick Sheary, DAR Museum Curator of Furnishings
September 20, 2016

When President James Monroe took residence in a freshly painted White House in 1817, barely three years had passed since the mansion was left a smoldering shell, a victim of the British in the War of 1812.  This gilded armchair is part of a fifty-three piece set Monroe ordered from the French ébeniste Pierre-Antoine Bellangé for the Oval Room (now the Blue Room) of the White House in 1817. Though it is dulled with age, when new this arm chair would have been very shiny. It is likely that Monroe chose French goods to furnish the Oval Room and State Dining Room in the rebuilt White House because, as a former Minister to France, he knew what could be bought there that reflected the latest neoclassical style.

Monroe hired the firm of Russell and LaFarge at Le Havre to procure the required furnishings. Bellangé had only three months to execute the order (June 15 to September 15) so they had to work quickly to meet the deadline made more difficult because, as LaFarge wrote Monroe, “that there was no possibility of purchasing anything readymade . . . in order to comply with the instructions of your Excellency.” When members of Congress saw this gilded set, they criticized its ostentatious appearance and in 1826 passed a law saying that “all furniture purchased for use in the President’s House shall be as far as practicable of American or domestic manufacture.”

The Bellangé set remained in the White House until most of it was sold in the mid nineteenth century to make way for a new decorative scheme.  In 1919, a donor, Richard Thompson, vice president of the Maryland Assurance Corporation, presented this chair to the DAR Museum for its decorative arts collection.

In order to understand this important piece of American history, this gilded arm chair recently made a trip to the furniture conservation lab. The pink silk upholstery which has been on the chair since the 1950s hid a wealth of information. During an initial, basic examination undertaken about fifteen years ago, I removed a fabric dust cloth nailed to the underside of the seat frame discovering that the under upholstery and stuffing appeared original to the chair. The patina of age, quality of the materials and construction technique supported this supposition. The webbing is closely woven in the French manner and appeared undisturbed since installation in 1817.

This revelation led to the current and more thorough examination in the lab. Removal of the 1950s upholstery revealed that in fact, not only was the under upholstery original but it also survived in a remarkable state of preservation. The overall excellent condition of the under upholstery is partly due to the finely made materials and match the 1817 invoice that called for “high quality webbing” and “hessian” (a loosely woven fabric). We can also tell that it is original because there is only one set of nail holes present in the framing relating to the under upholstery.

The thick seat and back with sharp edges looking like a box was fashionable in both France and England at that time. To keep its shape, the sides of the upholstery are tightly stitched in horizontal rows binding the horsehair stuffing and the hessian material together. This makes the edges tight and sturdy so that when someone sits in the chair, the boxed profile will not go out of shape. Even tighter stitching along the edges, called a “knife edge” creates the boxed look. The knife edge is so tightly stitched that it really feels knife sharp. 

Another remarkable discovery relates to the back of the chair.  Removal of the modern upholstery revealed two layers of older show cloth. The top layer is a thinly woven blue fabric likely applied in 1837 when President Martin Van Buren had the set recovered. This fabric is glued to underlying crimson fabric and tucked behind the frame. The 1830s upholsterer likely chose this installation method to avoid completely reupholstering the back. The red fabric is the original “crimson taffatas” ordered for the arm chair in 1817. Taffeta is a thin silk cloth. Though the front of the arm chair would have been upholstered with a patterned fabric, the back or secondary side received a plain treatment. Since it is so thin, the taffeta is supported on a backing of paper to keep it from splitting as well as to stop the horse hair stuffing from poking through.     

We are excited to share these intriguing findings about this object from our collection with you. DAR Museum visitors will have the opportunity to see the chair up close when it is placed on exhibition in 2017.

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