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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Cabinet for the drawing room, Arabella Worsham/John D. Rockefeller House, 4 West 54th Street, New York

Photo: Beth Mann

Cabinet for the drawing room, Arabella Worsham/John D. Rockefeller House, 4 West 54th Street, New York


George A. Schastey

American, 1839-1894

"The things that go into the furnishing of a house are so vastly improved with us, and things once rare are now become so common… that it is a comparatively easy matter… for people in ordinary good circumstances to have their rooms looking not merely comfortable but handsome."

Clarence Cook, art critic, 1881

In the 1870s and 1880s, Americans regarded art with unprecedented enthusiasm. The accumulation of objects of taste and beauty that began with the country's new wealthy captains of industry, who built homes to rival the princely palaces of European royalty, quickly spread to an ever-wider circle of the population. Art, design, decoration, ornament, beauty, style, art from the past, art from other culturesall these terms were part of the common vocabulary of people who aspired to demonstrate a sense of fine taste.

This American cabinet is a magnificent example of Renaissance Revival, one of the great reform movements of the latter part of the nineteenth century. With its richness of detail, lavish materials and superb craftsmanship, the cabinet represents luxury furniture that did not lend itself to mass production. It was created by Herter Brothers, one of the most respected firms in the United States.
Ebonized oak with brass, and gilded bronze and agate pulls
60 1/2 x 75 3/4 x 13 1/4 in. (153.7 x 192.4 x 33.7cm)
Guendolen Carkeek Plestcheeff Endowment for the Decorative Arts, the Decorative Arts and Paintings Council and the Decorative Arts Acquisition Fund, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum
Provenance: Unidentified dealer; sold to [Margot Johnson, Inc., New York]; sold to Seattle Art Museum, 2006
Photo: Beth Mann
Not currently on view

An American Renaissance: The Taste for Classicism

In the decades following the United States Civil War (1861-1865), American artists consciously allied their creations with the great art traditions of ancient Greece and Rome and the Italian Renaissance to advance a proud national sense of the high aspirations of American culture. In every area of American society and thought—from politics to finance, from city planning to architecture, and in every manner of artistic production—this was the American Renaissance. By 1876, the United States was, in the minds of many, on the verge of becoming a new Athens or a modern Florence, such was the perceived economic, intellectual and artistic potential of the young New World republic. Art was created in the service of high ideals.

Architects, designers and furniture makers were eager to adapt Greek shapes and Roman ornamentation to their productions in silver, ceramics, glass, wallpaper, textiles and furniture. Painters and sculptors collaborated on elaborate enterprises on the scale of the Italian Renaissance, whether working in the great houses of America's cultural elite or designing grand civic projects, like public squares and monuments to the country's military heroes.
Detail, "Dining Room, Fireplace, and Portion of Buffet," William H. Vanderbilt residence, 640 Fifth Ave., New York
Image courtesy of the Seattle Public Library

Saint-Gaudens: Reviving the Renaissance Spirit in America

One of the greatest exemplars of the Renaissance spirit in America was the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He lent his talents to extraordinary civic projects; he collaborated with artists, designers, craftsmen, and architects in the spirit of artistic brotherhood that characterized this new Golden Age; and he selected for his sculpture subjects that might uplift and ennoble his audience.

For this, one of his most important monuments, Saint-Gaudens chose feminine beauty—as it was conveyed in sculptural models from Greece and Rome—as a symbol of what he considered to be the greatest measure of humankind: our potential for selfless giving to others. Or, to put it as Saint-Gaudens did in the Latin language of ancient Rome, our exalted capacity for amor (love) and caritas (charity).
Amor Caritas, modeled 1898; cast probably 1898, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 2006.4
Photo: Paul Macapia

An Artful Interior: The Vanderbilt Residence

"Buffet in the Dining Room," William H. Vanderbilt residence, 640 Fifth Ave., New York
Between 1879 and 1882, the New York design firm of Herter Brothers designed and decorated William Henry Vanderbilt's new Fifth Avenue mansion. Each room in the Vanderbilt residence was designed with a different theme: the Pompeian vestibule; the Japanese parlor; and the famous Renaissance, oak dining room, with the same style of carved garland and swag decoration seen on the cabinet. This cabinet, of ebonized oak rather than oak, was probably part of another suite of built-in furniture created by Herter Brothers, which also explains its shallow depth.
Left: detail, 2006.5; right: detail, "Dining Room, Fireplace, and Portion of Buffet," William H. Vanderbilt residence
Christian Herter's emphasis on classical ornamentation, particularly as interpreted in the Renaissance, is apparent in this cabinet. It features Renaissance-style garlands, or swags, a unifying motif used throughout the house. The columns on each side feature putti's heads and swags of flowers and fruits that represent the four seasons. The gilded brasses, studded with cabochon mounted agates, are inspired by classical roundels used as ornamentation on furniture and in classical dress. From the moment one entered the Vanderbilt residence through reproductions of the Gates of Paradise—the originals were made by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Baptistery in Florence (1435)—there were references to Renaissance iconography. Herter was designing a palace for an American "Medici."

William Henry Vanderbilt: Patron of America's Gilded Age

William Henry Vanderbilt, n.d.
Houses of Mrs. W.H. Vanderbilt and Mrs. E.F. Shepard, Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y., 1886, Ticknor & Co.


Exhibition HistoryNew York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age: George A. Schastey, Dec. 15, 2015 - June 5, 2016. No catalogue.
Published References"Seattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures." London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007, pp. 22-23, illus. p. 22

Junker, Patricia. "America in the Artful Age," A Community of Collectors, Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 2008, p. 190, illus. 160.

Vincent, Nicholas C. "Rediscovering George A. Schastey." The Magazine Antiques 183, no. 1 (January/February 2016): pp. 177-178, reprodced fig. 8.

Felinghuysen, Alice cooney and Nicholas C. Vincent. "Artistic Furiture of the Gilded Age." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 73, no. 3 (Winter 2016): reproduced fig. 23.

Beckerdite, Luke. American Furniture. Hanover: Chipstone Foundation, 2017; pp. 71, 81, 96, reproduced fig. 12, 38, 68

Seattle Art Museum respectfully acknowledges that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. We honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future.

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