Exhibition Spotlight: Judge Irwin Untermyer’s Walnut Curule Armchairs

A Pair of Walnut Curule Form Armchairs from the collection of Irwin Untermyer Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

A Pair of Walnut Curule Form Armchairs from the collection of Irwin Untermyer Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

Our Great Provenances exhibition continues through the end of the week, and so will our daily spotlights on individual pieces in the exhibition.  Today we are taking a closer look at a pair of walnut curule form armchairs that were previously in the collection of the esteemed American collector, Judge Irwin Untermyer.  Untermyer famously left his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and these chairs were part of the bequest.

This rare pair of mid 19th century Renaissance-style walnut curule-form armchairs features a rounded back, arms, and seat cushion all upholstered in worn green silk velvet upholstery, standing on moulded curved legs.

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Judge Irwin Untermyer’s apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue, New York showing the chairs in situ

Irwin Untermyer

Irwin Untermyer (1886-1973) was an esteemed lawyer, judge, and art collector.  In his lifetime he amassed one of, if not the greatest collection of British decorative arts in America.  Untermyer was born in New York and attended Columbia University for his undergraduate and law degrees.  After a legal career in the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, Untermyer retired in 1945 to devote himself ‘with undivided interest to his pursuits as a collector.’

From his apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue, he amassed an impressive collection of English furniture, porcelain, textiles, and silver.  In the foreword of his 1958 publication entitled English Furniture with Some Furniture of Other Countries in the Irwin Untermyer Collection (1958), Untermyer writes ‘I have always regarded the English furniture as the outstanding part of the collection, for though I have acquired other forms of art, there has never been any time during the past forty-five years when I have not been interested in the acquisition of English furniture. ‘

He served as a trustee at the Metropolitan Museum of Art between 1951 and 1971.  He began making gifts to museum in 1955 and continued to do so for the rest of his life.  In total, he gifted around 2,000 works from his collection.

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An early postcard of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Design

These chairs feature the distinctive curule form.  Curule is defined as a something relating to the authority of the senior magistrates in ancient Rome who, because of their status, were entitled to sit in the sella curulis.  This curule seat is in the form of an x and therefore can be folded.  Over the years, these seats have been called everything from a Dante chair, a Savonarola chair, a scissors chair, or more simply, a cross-frame chair.

The revival of interest in antiquity in the 18th century saw the resurgence of the popularity of curule seats.  The curule form was used throughout the 19th century to appeal to antiquarian taste, as shown in the present example.

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