Baltimore was an early and important center of fancy-chair production in an American style. The major progenitors were the Finlay brothers, Hugh and John, who as early as 1803 were promoting a neoclassical style of American Empire furniture with a heavy reliance on archaeological references that featured gold leaf and painted decoration. In 1810, Hugh traveled to Europe to gather the latest designs from London and Paris, returning with drawings and ideas that allowed the Finlays to advertise their ability to “make the most approved articles in their line.” There soon developed a unique Baltimore chair style characterized by a broad rectangular crest—called a tablet top—that extended beyond short vase-turned stiles with a single ring turning at the top and several more at the bottom; side seat rails joining the stiles at a high elbow; a rolled front seat rail; and turned, tapering legs with ring-turned collar and ankles and small ball feet. The chairs were based on the Roman rather than Grecian klismos form, but turned front legs rather than saber legs were preferred for their stability. The Finlays’ late style was a study in brilliant contrasts: gold-stenciled ornamentation reminiscent of European ormolu against gleaming mahogany or other rich wood surfaces.
The Finlays produced furniture for the upper reaches of Baltimore-area society, but the style became so widespread that all chairs of this type are referred to as “Baltimore,” even when produced by any of the factories from Baltimore to New York and New England through the 1840s. This example features all the traits of a Baltimore chair, from the tablet top to the ring turnings. Instead of mahogany or another dark, expensive wood, however, the chair is painted black with simplified stenciled gold-leaf motifs of feathers, leaves, and acorns.
Stacy C. Hollander, "Baltimore Chair," in American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with American Folk Art Museum, 2001), 330.