French Chairs

Research & Collections

Furnishing the Drawing Room with French Chairs

Jean-Baptiste Lelarge
Beech with modern paint and upholstery, ca. 1780

Purchase and conservation made possible through funds from the Dolley Madison Legacy Luncheon

Like their peers, the Madisons often acquired furnishings second-hand through friends, vendors, and auctions. Dolley Madison once asked her brother-in-law Richard Cutts: “Do they sell 2d hand Carpets – or Carpetting at Oction cheap? at what price?” Furniture sales by departing ambassadors or foreign dignitaries often presented an opportunity to acquire otherwise scarce foreign goods. 

George Washington Connection

In 1789, President George Washington purchased a set of chairs from French ambassador, the Comte de Moustier when he was recalled. Washington brought the chairs to Philadelphia, the temporary national capital, for use in the green drawing room of the Executive Mansion, a house rented from Robert Morris. Washington filled out the set in 1793 with identical Louis XVI style chairs ordered from French-trained Philadelphia upholsterer George Berteault. Berteault, in turn, subcontracted out the woodwork to local cabinet maker Adam Hains. The chairs, listed on the February 1797 document “Articles in the Green Drawing Room which will be sold,” were sold at an auction of Executive Mansion furnishings when Washington retired in 1797. Evidence suggests that James and Dolley Madison, who were in Philadelphia at the time, likely purchased the chairs and other items at this sale.

Presidential Detective Story at Work

An extensive investigation of six Louis XVI-styled French chairs with provenances linking them to the Madisons, now in private and museum collections, took place between 2010 and 2012. In addition to paint and wood experts, The Montpelier Foundation partnered with the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the Moses Myers House at the Chrysler Museum of Art, and private collectors to determine provenance and answer the outstanding question: “Were these six chairs once owned by James Madison?” 

Findings from paint microscopy and wood sampling were revealing. In addition to a Madison provenance, six common layers of paint bridged four of the extant chairs – owned by The Montpelier Foundation on behalf of The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, and a private collection. One chair retained the stamp of Jean-Baptiste Lelarge (1744-1802), a well known eighteenth century Parisian chairmaker. During his career, Lelarge also completed commissions for Marie Antoinette’s Petite Trianon and the Palace at Fontainebleau.  Further, these same four side chairs are constructed from beech, the traditional wood with which French menuisiers use to manufacture chairs, stools, and other seating furniture. The three unstamped chairs with shared paint and wood history to the stamped Lelarge chair were likely part of the blended set Washington ordered from Berteault. Since it is known that Washington patronized the French master tappisier, or upholsterer, it is probable that the three unstamped chairs are American copies of the fourth French-made chair, originally purchased by Washington from the Comte de Moustier.

A one-day symposium was held at Montpelier in November 2010 to deliver the results of the comparative study. The groundbreaking discoveries confirmed that the Madisons owned of a set of Louis XVI-style chairs, and eventually led Montpelier to acquire a set of ten nearly identical neoclassical side chairs stamped by Jean Baptiste Lelarge with similarly turned, fluted, and tapered legs, carved rosettes, and squared backs. As Dolley requested of Hannah Gallatin in 1816, the chairs are upholstered in the same crimson damask used for the Drawing Room window treatments. The chairs are painted common gray based on microscopy analysis of the originals.

Research into the Madisons’ French chairs was made possible by generous funding and support from the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund for Historic Interiors. Expert wood analysis was provided by Thomas A. Snyder of Williamsburg Art Conservation, Inc.; paint analysis was conducted by Susan L. Buck, Ph.D. Contact Montpelier’s curatorial department for a copy of Thomas A. Snyder’s final report, “A Comparative Analysis of Six Louis XVI Style Chairs for James Madison’s Montpelier.”


Second-Hand Shopping

The Madisons, like many of their peers, acquired furnishings second-hand through vendors, auctions, or friends shopping on their behalf.



What is Paint Microscopy?

Cross-section paint microscopy is a technique used to learn about the historical layers of paint on a wall or a piece of furniture. Using a scalpel, a trained conservator can take a small paint sample and view it under a microscope. The conservator then analyzes the layers of paint, or strata, and dates them by composition. In keeping with the law of superposition, the oldest paint layers are located on the bottom followed by newer layers.


What is Wood Sampling?

Wood sampling is useful in determining the type of wood used to make a particular piece of furniture. A trained conservator generally takes a small sampling of wood from an inconspicuous location on the piece, i.e. the underside of a chair. The sample is then viewed under a microscope and identified. In many cases, once the type of wood is identified, a conservator can determine the origin of the piece of furntiture. For example, Yellow Pine, as a secondary wood, suggests an origin in the southern United States.