John Henry Belter is one of the most celebrated figures in American decorative arts.  In 1880, Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer wrote this review of Belter’s work:

Be it noted—for this is the main point of my argument—that these perfunctory elaborations of structure were not beautiful in any sense…They were false and detestable, not by being unnecessary only, but by being hideous and inappropriate and mechanical.  They were produced simply by a resolve at all events to avoid plainness.

Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, Volume 25, page 215

Ok, maybe not the best tribute to Belter’s legacy, but it does not diminish his contributions to furniture production and design during the mid-1800’s.  Belter patented a method of steaming wood that layered wood veneers on top of each other, which allowed craftspeople to produce ornately carved furniture.  As you can tell by Mrs. van Rensselaer’s opinion, the furniture produced was anything but plain.

During the 1800’s, American decorative arts styles looked to the past for inspiration:  motifs evoking the Roman Empire appeared on Federal-style furniture; griffins and classical Grecian urns could be found on many Empire-style pieces; and the soaring cathedrals of medieval Europe inspired the Gothic, Elizabethan, and Romanesque Revivals.  With the newfound decorative freedom that came from Belter’s patents, craftspeople looked to the ornate carvings of French rococo from the 1700’s for inspiration.

The result was furniture such as a center table in the collection of the New York State Historical Association.

Center table, John Henry Belter (1804-1863), ca. 1850, rosewood, 41" x 28.25", Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0181.1974

Center table, attributed to John Henry Belter (1804-1863), ca. 1850, rosewood, 41″ x 28.25″, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0181.1974

A stretcher with an elaborate floral bouquet connects four heavy cabriole legs.

Center table, stretcher, detail, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0181.1974

Center table, stretcher, detail, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0181.1974

Center table, cabriole leg, front, detail, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0181.1974

Center table, cabriole leg, front detail, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0181.1974

Center table, cabriole leg, side detail, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0181.1974

Center table, cabriole leg, side detail, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0181.1974

Piercing, grapes, and more decorative floral motifs adorn the table’s sides.

Center table, side detail, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0181.1974

Center table, side detail, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0181.1974

The table attributed to Belter clearly evokes French rococo of the 1700’s.

Belter’s furniture and tables, such as the one in the NYSHA collection, were so highly regarded during the 1800’s—Mrs. Van Renssealaer notwithstanding—that he was invited to display his work at the 1853 New-York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations.  The exhibition served as a way for countries to demonstrate their contributions to design.  Participating meant that a craftsperson was considered to be at the forefront of design in his or her country.

Thanks to his revolutionary method of treating wood, Belter allowed for American craftspeople to create their own take on an established European tradition.  Belter’s legacy lives on today—his name is synonymous with the Rococo Revival and any furniture that resembles the center table in the NYSHA collection is known as Belter-style furniture.

Plain and simple, John Henry Belter is one of the most innovative figures in American decorative arts.

– Eric Feingold, Cooperstown Graduate Program 2014

Want to learn more about John Henry Belter and the “hideous and inappropriate and mechanical” Rococo Revival?  Check out these sources for additional reading:

“American Revival Styles, 1840-1876.”  Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.  New York:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/revi/hd_revi.htm.

“HistoryWired:  John Henry Belter and Rococo Revival Furniture.”  Washington:  The Smithsonian Institution.  http://historywired.si.edu/detail.cfm?ID=486.

Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer.  “Decorative Arts and Its Dogmas.”  Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science no. 25 (1880):  213-220.

Milo M. Naeve.  Identifying American Furniture.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company (1998):  38-39.

“Official Catalogue of the New-York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations.”  New York:  George P. Putnam & Co. Publishers (1853):  82.

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