Flush Panel Armoires in Saint-Domingue and Louisiana

Echoes of an Island Past: Flush Panel Armoires in Saint-Domingue and Louisiana

Holden, Jack D

The French West Indies and Louisiana belong to a cultural continuum, witnessed in the island inflections present in early Louisiana-made furniture. Saint-Domingue (Haiti), the richest of the French Caribbean colonies, gave rise to a distinctive style – particularly evident in its armoires – that profoundly affected Louisiana and the lower Mississippi Valley.1 Among the émigrés who settled in Louisiana during and after the Haitian revolution were numbers of skilled craftsmen, including carpenters and cabinetmakers.2 Unfortunately, little of the material culture of Saint-Domingue survived this period of civil unrest. But traces of the cultural interchange remain. Flush panel armoires from Saint-Domingue, similar to Louisiana-made examples, have been identified and are pictured in the photo essay that follows.3

Flush panel armoires are not unique to Louisiana and the French Caribbean – but their scarcity elsewhere permits their identification as a signature regional model. Flush panels have not, to the author’s knowledge, been found on French Canadian case pieces. They appear occasionally on East Coast neoclassical rail-and-stile case pieces, but were never a preferred feature. Flush panels appear, albeit rarely, on neoclassical provincial French furniture, but are absent on earlier pieces. The exception, here, is late eighteenth-century furniture from Saint-Malo, France. As described by Louis Maloy, the characteristics of Saint-Malo armoires include flush panel doors separated by false stiles.4 While the flush panel may have been introduced to Louisiana directly from Saint-Malo, it is unlikely. The appearance of the flush panel armoire in Louisiana coincides with the arrival of Saint-Domingue émigrés in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.5 The Anglo-American craftsmen resident in Louisiana preferred recessed panels. Thus it is the author’s opinion that the flush panel tradition, as seen in certain Louisiana-made armoires, originated in Saint-Domingue.

The four armoires illustrated here – two of them linked to Philadelphia, two to Louisiana – allow us to trace the cabinetmaker’s craft as it was dispersed across the émigré diaspora, planted in fresh soil, and imbued with a new “Creole style.”

“San Domingo Armoires,” ca. 1770

Two flush panel armoires were sold in Philadelphia in November 1978 by the Frank S. Schwarz and Son Gallery. While their current location is unknown, their origin and provenance may be discerned from a silver plaque on one armoire:

Made by slaves on the estate

of Etienne Bellumeaude in San Domingo

prior to 1 770

Adelaide de la Vincendiere Low Jenkins 1 820

Enouch Louis Lowe 1861

Adelaide Lowe Jenkins 1 892

Mary Adelaide Jenkins 1918

The “consciously recorded tradition”6 and the closely related armoires at Girard College add validity to the provenance.7

Philadelphia Creole Style Armoire, 1796

Stephen Girard (1750-1831) was a merchant banker and philanthropist and arguably the wealthiest man in America at the time of his death. This armoire (see page 121) was made for him, in 1796, by two émigré cabinetmakers from Saint-Domingue. A payment of eighty dollars to Jean Baptiste Laurent and Charles Domballe documents the purchase.8 Although made in Philadelphia, the Girard armoire documents the use of flush panels in Saint-Domingue at an early date – and strongly suggests Saint-Domingue as the origin of the tradition in Louisiana.

The armoire is constructed entirely of Swietenia sp. (true mahogany) using rail-and-stile panel techniques fixed with pins. Note the central door rails, which form V-shaped inserts into the stiles – recalling the Saint-Malo pieces. An astragal closes the doors. Three mahogany shelves fit the interior and a spurred scallop finishes the skirt. The cavetto cornice is rounded in accord with the stiles in a manner similar to many Louisiana-made armoires. Front tapered cabriole legs are footed on pyramidal blocks, while the back legs are sculpted as cabrioles in silhouette. The back is finished with four roughly sawn and adzed panels.

West Indian Creole Style Armoire, 1770-1782

This distinguished Creole armoire (see page 123) is a key to our understanding of the ties between Saint-Domingue and Louisiana armoires. As discussed above, the flush panel tradition seems to have developed in the last quarter of the eighteenth century in Saint-Domingue. In Louisiana, the style is usually associated with a later date. This armoire, however, owned by a prominent and popular Creole, may have brought the form to Louisiana as early as 1782.

Jaques Villere, the first native-born governor of Louisiana (1816-20), served as an artillery officer in Saint-Domingue from 1775 to 1782. It is highly plausible that he brought this armoire back from Saint-Domingue on his return to Louisiana. The piece descended through Villere’s daughter Marie Adele, who married into the de la Vergne family of New Orleans, and it remained in the possession of de la Vergne descendants until its recent purchase by the current owners.

The armoire is crafted of heavy, high-quality mahogany with Spanish cedar secondary wood. Rail-and-stile construction frames twelve flush panels – three per door, three per side. The doors are closed by an astragal; their central rails form V-shaped inserts into the stiles. Each door panel, of “plum pudding” mahogany, comprises two tongue-and-groove boards.9 The cabriole legs are footed with pyramidal pads. Three inverted arches with shaped indents are centered on the skirt and bordered with spurred scallops. Pit-saw kerf marks are visible on the six panels of the back and confirm the early date of the armoire.

Louisiana Creole Style Flush Panel Armoire, 1780-1800

Perhaps the oldest of the Louisiana flush panel armoires, this piece (see page 125) bears close stylistic resemblance to the three above. Flush panels, an astragal, V-shaped inserts for the central door rails, and mitered door joints indicate a common heritage. Construction techniques, including the use of rose-headed nails, confirm an early date of construction. It is worth noting that mitered corners are usually associated with a nineteenth-century construction date in Louisiana; this armoire is an apparent exception. Another curiosity is the presence of scroll feet, rarely found on Louisiana furniture – but formed, when they are present, by the extension of a bead on the edge of a skirt extending into the legs and ending as a scroll.

Matthew Lewis, in a contemporary account of life in the West Indies in 1815, observes that “mulatto children” born to slave mothers are, by custom, “never… employed as field negroes, but as tradesman.”10 One such tradesman, an émigré cabinetmaker from Haiti, may have made this armoire.11

Like the Villere armoire, this piece is constructed of mahogany – but adds cypress as a secondary wood, as often seen in Louisiana. The eight flush panels of the armoire are dadoed into their rails and stiles. The doors have mitered mortise-and-tenon joints fixed with pins. Three pairs of fische hinges support the doors, which overlap with an astragal. Central door rails, mortised into the stiles, boast external V-shaped inserts but straight interior joints. Three flutes decorate the rounded corners of the front stiles. The back is completed with six panels.

NOTES

1 To the author’s knowledge, no serious study of the furniture of Haiti has been done. Previous studies of the furniture of the French islands have centered on Martinique and Guadeloupe.

2 The Historic New Orleans Collection, ed. (2006: 85-91).

3 In a flush panel armoire, the door panels form a contiguous flat surface with their framing rails and stiles.

4 The flush panel armoires illustrated by Maloy have central door rails with V-shaped inserts into the stiles, a feature that will recur in several of the armoires discussed in this essay. See Michael Connors (2006). It is intriguing to note that Saint-Malo was populated early on by corsairs, as was Santo Domingo/Saint-Domingue.

5 One of the Saint-Domingue armoires pictured below appeared in Louisiana as early as 1782. Descending in the de la Vergne family of New Orleans, it could have served as a model for the flush panel in Louisiana.

6 Jeanne Schinto (2006: 32C).

7 See Thomas Eakins (1978: item 46).

8 Girard College Archives, letter book seven, document 322. The Stephen Girard Collection, Girard College Catalog, Girard College, Philadelphia, 1982.

9 This wood was apparently rare, even in Saint-Domingue.

10 Matthew Lewis (1845: 45).

11 See Margo Preston Moscou (2007: 146-153).

PUBLISHED WORKS CITED

Connors, Michael. 2006. French Colonial West Indian Armoires. The Magazine Antiques 170, 9 (September), pp. 128- 135.

Eakins, Thomas. 1978. American Paintings & Decorative Arts: Philadelphia Collection IV. Philadelphia, PA: Frank S. Schwarz and Son.

Lewis, Matthew. 1845. Journal of a Residence Among the Negroes in the West Indies. London: J. Murray. Reprinted Gloustershire, UK: Stroud, 2005.

Moscou, Margo Preston. 2007. New Orleans Freemen of Color: A Forgotten Generation of Cabinetmakers Rediscovered. The Magazine Antiques 171,5 (May), pp. 146-153.

Schinto, Jeanne. 2006. Provenance and the ‘Granny Notes’ Factor. Maine Antique Digest. December, p.32C.

The Historic New Orleans Collection, ed. 2006. Common Routes: St. Domingue * Louisiana. Exhibition Catalogue. Paris: ADAGP/Somogy.

Jack D. Holden, Preservationist, The Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Copyright Southern Quarterly Spring 2007

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