Easy Chair, c. 1750–1800
Mahogany; maple, white pine, and original wool needlework on linen canvas
45 1/2 × 32 3/4 × 31 3/4 in. (115.6 × 83.2 × 80.6 cm)
The Bayou Bend Collection, gift of Miss Ima Hogg
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Explore the concept of tessellation.
Identify examples of tessellation in art and in the world.
Create tessellated designs through stamp printing.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Although easy chairs were common in the mid to late eighteenth century, few have survived with their original upholstery intact. This American easy chair is one of three known American examples that retain their original needlework upholstery. Original flamestitch-patterned embroidery covers the front surfaces of the chair. Original red wool fabric covers the chair back and edges the seat cushion. The embroidery was especially valued in the eighteenth century. It is rare to find original upholstery on furniture from that period. That this chair has survived with its flamestitch needlework intact indicates the importance of this fabric.
The design is worked in shades of yellow, blue, red, and green, and the remarkably well-preserved embroidery is typical of a popular, although time-consuming, method of eighteenth-century decoration. The pattern of embroidery, flamestitch, gets its name from the flame-shaped patterns of color. These shapes and colors repeat throughout the chair. The rounded flame patterns are echoed in the curving legs, which end in ball-and-claw feet. The chair also reveals the sleek lines and economy of padding used in upholstery at the time. This design is emblematic of the popular Chippendale furniture style of the mid to late eighteenth century.
This chair is the result of collaboration among many artisans. A cabinetmaker made the wooden frame of the chair. The fabric, probably embroidered by a woman, was placed over the cushions, padded back, and wings by a professional upholsterer. During this time, upholstery work was the principal decorative art-related trade for a woman to pursue. The embroidered cover represented months or even years of careful needlework. In many respects, the eighteenth century upholsterer was the forerunner of the interior designer.
Inventory studies indicate that in the 1700s easy chairs were mainly used by the rich and elderly. Because of their comfortable design, these chairs were found in bed chambers rather than formal public rooms. The easy chair had wings to deflect drafts, and a padded seat for comfort. A chamberpot was often concealed under the seat cushion.
What material do you think this object is made from? How can you tell?
The chair legs and support are mahogany; the cover of the chair is wool embroidery on linen. Do you see similarities in shape in the wood and the embroidery? Do you think they go well together? Discuss symmetry and variety in this work. How do they balance each other?
The rounded flame patterns are echoed in the curving legs, which end in ball-and-claw feet. The chair also reveals the sleek lines and economy of padding used in upholstery at the time.
What lines and patterns can you see? How would you describe the shapes in this artwork?
The pattern of embroidery, flame-stitch, gets its name from the flame-shaped patterns of color.
What colors are used? What associations do you have with these colors?
How do you think this object was used? Is it functional or decorative or both? What does its title ‘Easy chair’ tell you?
The easy chair had wings to deflect drafts, and a padded seat for comfort. A chamberpot was often concealed under the seat cushion. Because of their comfortable design, these chairs were found in bed chambers rather than formal public rooms. Who might own a chair like this?
Inventory studies indicate that in the 1700s easy chairs were mainly used by the rich and elderly. Discuss why this may have had an influence on the fact that this chair’s upholstery is in such good condition.
This chair is the result of collaboration among many artisans. Who would be involved in the making of this chair?
A cabinetmaker made the wooden frame of the chair. The fabric was embroidered by a seamstress, and placed over the cushions and padded back by a professional upholsterer. Who do you think held such positions in the 18th century, when this chair was made? And is that different in our society? Discuss.
What is the difference between ‘artist’ and ‘artisan’? Do we need to make such a difference? Why?
Study the Easy Chair. Discuss the materials, and how the chair was made.
Find repeating patterns in the chair. How do these repeated designs bring unity, balance, variety, and rhythm to the works?
Teach the concept of tessellation and define the term. Look at the work of art carefully. Are their patterns tessellated? Support your answer.
Look for tessellations in the room, for example in the ceiling tile, patterns in clothing fabric, window panes.
Print tessellated designs. (see Art Lesson: Printing Patterns, pg. 10)
Have students compare their tessellated patterns to the repeated patterns in the work of art. Discuss unity, balance, variety, and rhythm in the students’ art.
Subject Matter Connection
This object and others like it are often displayed in museums with minimal information about them. Observation becomes the only tool students have to understand the function and meaning of the object. Studying historical cultural items helps students broaden their artistic perspectives. This activity also flexes student’s observation skills and how to use those skills to make meaning.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.