Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735-1835. Edited by Jessica Dorman and Sarah R. Doerries. (New Orleans: Historic New Orleans Collection, 2010. Pp. [xiv], 537. $95.00, ISBN 978-0-917860-56-0.)
The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790-1820: "A True North Britain" in the Southern Backcountry. By Elizabeth A. Davison. (Lanham, Md., and other cities: AltaMira Press, c. 2011. Pp. [xx], 219. $99.00, ISBN 978-07591-1954-3.)
These two volumes deal with aspects of the furniture of the colonial and U.S. South, addressing different areas within the region and with very different scopes. Furnishing Louisiana." Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735-1835 is a monumental survey of furniture made and used in Louisiana between 1735 and 1835. The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790-1820: "A True North Britain" in the Southern Backcountry focuses on the work of one cabinetmaker in the Virginia and Maryland backcountry between 1790 and 1820. Both books in their own way contribute to our knowledge of southern furniture.
In 1949 Joseph Downs, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggested that "little of artistic merit was made south of Baltimore," which became a rallying point for students of southern furniture and decorative arts (Dorman and Doerries, p. 3). Yet until recently, furniture of the southern backcountry--the Piedmont and beyond--took a backseat to the products of the Chesapeake and the Carolina Lowcountry. And areas like Louisiana were simply on their own.
Furnishing Louisiana is a large and beautiful volume, published by the Historic New Orleans Collection. It represents a huge leap forward in the study of its subject, while acknowledging earlier scholars such as Jessie J. Poesch, author of Early Furniture of Louisiana (New Orleans, 1972). The lead authors of the present volume, Jack D. Holden and H. Parrott Bacot, bring the perspectives of a longtime private collector and a veteran museum professional, respectively. Additional contributors are Cybele T. Gontar, who writes on furniture importation into New Orleans and on the Campeche chair in Louisiana, and who is the coauthor, with Holden, of an essay on e'benisterie (veneer work and pictorial inlay) in Louisiana; Brian J. Costello, who takes the reader "Inside the Early Louisiana Home"; and Francis J. Puig, who explores Creole furniture from the upper Mississippi River Valley. The book contains over 1,200 full-color illustrations, most of them photographs by Jim Zietz, a wonderful resource in their own right.
The authors present a vast array of Louisiana furniture, including 117 armoires as well as chairs, benches, beds, cradles, tables, desks and other case pieces, clocks, and utilitarian objects. Holden's own extensive collection is prominently featured, as are many other collections private and public. The balance tips toward the private, which is good in that it provides excellent documentation of many pieces that are not as accessible as those in museums, but not so good in that the authors' expertise is focused less on artifacts now on public display.
The authors make a distinction between Creole furniture, made in New Orleans or its cultural hinterlands and combining French, Spanish, and Anglo-American styles, and Acadian furniture, made by refugees from French Canada who settled in southwestern Louisiana. The authors imply that all Louisiana furniture was creolized, even in the earliest period of colonization, but they hedge that bet in the chapter on armoires. Here earlier armoires, made before 1790 and "not acculturated," are termed "Colonial" and those after 1790, "Creole" (p. 142). If there are prominent stylistic elements, the description becomes "Colonial Armoire in the Baroque Manner" (p. 142). In other regions these features might be termed a colonial (or provincial) version of a given style, but there seems to be a desire to declare the Creole style as distinctive. Once into the Creole style proper, the authors arrange the furniture by structural or decorative techniques. …