Madison's Campeche chair returns to Montpelier
The seating furniture that populated Montpelier during James and Dolley Madison’s retirement varied from high-style French chairs in the Drawing Room and painted fancy chairs in the Dining Room to the furniture of D. C. cabinetmaker William Worthington that Madison retained after his second presidential term. Perhaps Madison’s most comfortable choice was his carved mahogany Campeche chair, which Mary E. E. Cutts described as “Mr. Madison’s favorite seat.”1
The piece, which dates to ca. 1820, is noteworthy for its detailed embossed leather seat, which depicts a stylized Spanish Hapsburg double-headed eagle motif.
Such chairs take their name from the port city of Campeche in the Yucatan Peninsula region of Mexico where the form was first produced. Numerous nineteenth-century cargo listings from the port of New Orleans document the shipment of these chairs from Mexico, where they are known as boutaques—French patois for the Spanish word butaca, or armchair.
We believe Madison was likely first introduced to Campeche chairs by his closest friend, neighbor, and political colleague, Thomas Jefferson, who owned several similar chairs and later had copies produced at the Monticello joinery. Scholars surmise that master joiners James Dinsmore and John Neilson, both of whom were heavily involved in the ca. 1809-1812 architectural renovations and additions to Montpelier, may have even copied Madison’s uniquely detailed chair for Jefferson and other local customers, as a variety of period pieces resembling Madison’s have been identified in Virginia.2
Montpelier is fortunate to display James Madison’s original Mexican-made Campeche chair, which has been generously loaned by the James Madison Museum through mid-December 2011. Visitors will find the chair situated in the Drawing Room, where we believe Madison often sat in remembered conversations with his friends and peers, their constant presence evoked by sculpted busts and well-executed portraiture.
1. Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.
2. Cybele Trione Gontar, “The Campeche Chair in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Metropolitan Museum Journal (2003): 183-212.
Madison's Campeche chair in the Drawing Room, on loan from the James Madison Museum.