This settee, with its intricately carved rosewood, is a prime example of rococo revival and one of the finest works by cabinetmaker John Henry Belter. The rococo revival style, characterized by its playfulness and elaborate ornamentation, was popular in the 1840s and remained so into the 1870s. To create this style, artists and craftsmen looked to eighteenth-century French design for inspiration. Belter specialized in the kind of graceful and ornate carving that was essential to the style, and he became best known for parlor furniture. A Belter settee or center table would have been the focal point of the room and the most desirable for public collection and display.

Belter preferred the pronounced grain patterns and darker hue of rosewood, and his reputation was made with his work in this medium. Rosewood, however, is not strong by nature,1 making it problematic as a carving surface. And it is difficult to shape into the twisting and turning patterns found in the rococo revival vernacular. Belter developed techniques that allowed him to work with this medium, applying for several patents from 1847 to 1860. Three of these patents dealt with laminate construction, where layers of rosewood veneer are glued together to create a stronger surface to carve. This construction method also made it possible to mold the wood into curved shapes. In addition to carving, Belter excelled in ornamentation, which is abundant in the settee. The crest rail contains urns, roosters, horns of plenty, foliated elements, as well as a multitude of roses.

Belter, at the height of his powers in the 1850s, was one of the most influential rococo revival cabinetmakers in the United States.2 Before moving to New York in 1833, he apprenticed in Württemberg, Germany. Belter became a naturalized citizen in 1839, and, in 1844, his shop was first listed in the New York directory. Through the 1850s and into the l860s, the directory noted several moves within New York City. Belter went into partnership with his brother-in-law J. H. Springmeyer in 1856; two additional brothers-in­law, William and Frederick Springmeyer, had joined the firm by l861. The firm continued operation after Belter’s death in 1863 under the name J. H. Belter and was renamed Springmeyer Brothers in 1865.

Operations continued until 1867, when the doors were closed because of bankruptcy. A business report from the 1850s states “that the quality of the furniture produced [by Belter] was too high for the business to be as profitable as that of some of his competitors.”3 Michael E. Crane

Adapted from Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 81, nos. 1­–2 (2007): 16–17.

Notes
Classical Revivals, Inc., in Boston, was consulted for the appropriate loom-woven period fabric of the settee. The color match was based on recovered original fabric strands preserved around tacking nails, which provided the basis for how the period fabrics were dyed.
1. Edward Stanek and Douglas True describe rosewood as brittle. For more information on rosewood and laminations, see M. D. Schwartz, E. J. Stanek, and D. K. True, The Furniture of John Henry Belter and the Rococo Revival: An Inquiry into Nineteenth-Century Furniture Design through a Study of the Gloria and Richard Manney Collection (New York, 1981), 9–10.
2. Schwartz writes, “As far as is known, Rococo furniture was all that Belter produced . . . .” See Schwartz, Stanek, and True 1981, 2.
3. Ibid.
Artist attributed to John Henry Belter, American, 1804-1863
Title
  • Settee
Date between 1850 and 1855
Medium rosewood
Dimensions Overall: 80 × 51 × 36 inches (203.2 × 129.5 × 91.4 cm)
Credit Line Founders Society Purchase, Robert H. Tannahill Foundation Fund
Accession Number 1995.27
Department American Art before 1950
On View American W273, Level 2 (see map)
A dealer in Los angeles.
Peter Hill, Inc.;
1995-present, purchase by the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, Michigan, USA)
"American Decorative Arts Acquisitions 1985-2005." Bulletin of the DIA 81, 1-2 (2007): pp. 16-17, 56.