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American cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe celebrated in Metropolitan Museum retrospective exhibition
Duncan Phyfe, Window Seat, 1826. Rosewood veneer, rosewood-grained cherry, stenciled and free-hand gilding, gilded gesso and vert antique, die-stamped brass borders; secondary woods: ash, cherry or gumwood, 19–1/4 x 42–1/2 x 17 in. (48.8 x 107.9 x 43.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Anonymous gift. Image: Bruce Schwarz, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

NEW YORK, N.Y.- Renowned in his lifetime for his elegant designs and superior craftsmanship, Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854) remains to this day America’s most famous cabinetmaker. The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York—the first retrospective on Phyfe in 90 years—serves to re-introduce this artistic and influential master craftsman to a contemporary audience. On view are furniture produced in Phyfe’s Fulton Street workshops that once stood on the site of the former World Trade Center. The full chronological sweep of his long and distinguished career is featured, including examples of his best-known furniture from the period 1805-20, which was influenced heavily by early English Regency design; his more opulent, monumental, and archaeologically correct Grecian style of the late 1810s and 1820s, sometimes referred to as American Empire; and his sleek, minimalist late work of the 1830s and 1840s known as the Grecian Plain style, based largely on French Restauration furniture design.

The exhibition brings together nearly 100 works from private and public collections throughout the United States. Highlights of the exhibition include some never-before-seen documented masterpieces and furniture that has descended directly in the Phyfe family, as well as the master cabinetmaker’s own chest of woodworking tools.

Organized chronologically, the exhibition will present the life and work of the noted early 19th-century New York City cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe through furniture, drawings, documents, personal possessions, and furniture. Portraits of his clients and contemporary depictions of New York City street scenes and domestic interiors will provide a glimpse into Phyfe’s milieu.

A poor immigrant when he arrived in America in the early 1780s from his native Scotland, Phyfe acquired wealth and fame through hard work and exceptional talent both as a craftsman and a businessman. Throughout the first half of the 19th century he made neoclassical furniture for the social and mercantile elite of New York, Philadelphia, and the American South. His personal style, characterized by superior proportions, balance, symmetry, and restraint, became the local style for at least two generations in New York. Many apprentices and journeymen exposed to this distinctive style by serving a stint in the Phyfe shop or by copying the master cabinetmaker’s designs helped to create and sustain this local school of cabinetmaking. Demand for Phyfe’s work reached its peak around 1815–1820, when he was in such demand that he was referred the “United States rage.” He remained the dominant figure in his trade into the 1840s and his eventual retirement in 1847 at the age of 77. The fires of Phyfe’s fame were briefly extinguished after his passing in 1854, but rekindled in the early 1900s by a passionate amateur historian, who was himself once a New York cabinetmaker, and a coterie of scholars, collectors, and connoisseurs who lionized Phyfe once again. This renewed fame culminated in the first-ever monographic exhibition held in an art museum on the work of a single cabinetmaker, Furniture from the Workshop of Duncan Phyfe, which opened at the Metropolitan in November of 1922.

Because Phyfe’s furniture was seldom signed, yet was widely imitated, it is sometimes difficult to determine with accuracy which works he actually made. The exhibition breaks new ground by matching rare bills of sale and similar documents with furniture whose history of ownership is known, thereby codifying his style over time.

A video featuring some of the techniques used in the Phyfe workshop to create his furniture masterpieces, including relief carving and turning is being shown within the exhibition.

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