Furniture: Settee made for P. T. Barnum by Julius Dessoir


From Barnum Museum

Date manufactured/created
1846 – 1848
Created by
Julius Dessoir
Description
Settee style of sofa from P.T. Barum’s first Bridgeport home, Iranistan.  The wood frame of this custom-made piece is tiger maple, a striped version of maple.  It is part of a suite of furniture made by Julius Dessoir, a New York City cabinetmaker, between about 1846 and 1848.  The set, which also includes six chairs, a library table, and a desk, was made for Barnum's personal library.  

The design of the settee is asymmetrical, with a partial back and just one arm.  On the "tall" end, there is a full back support that matches the armchair in the set, while at the opposite end, the settee is backless and has no arm.  There are many variations in the forms of settees, but in general they were made for just two people to sit on, or for one person to recline.  This particular settee is not well suited to reclining as its armrest would not offer comfortable head support.  Since this suite of furniture was intended for the Barnum family's library, one might imagine an adult sitting on the settee to read to a child, the parent being at the left end with the tall back, with a child or two seated in middle where the back support is low.  

The settee features fanciful carvings of moths, swans, and a tent-like form with bells or tassels, the same as those on chair backs in the set.  These designs echo the "exotic" style of Iranistan's architecture.  In addition there are two prominent carvings of dragon heads, one on the arm and the other at the righthand end of the seatback; the latter is only carved on the front side and end.  Each dragon has the long snout of a dog, large eyes, and feathers on its head that change to scales on the serpent-like neck.  Their necks emerge from carved designs resembling acanthus leaves.  

The geometric ornamentation along the skirt rail of the settee is inspired by Chinese architecture and design, referred to as Chinoiserie. During the 1800s in Europe and America, Chinoiserie was a popular style that drew upon elements of Chinese decorative arts, applying them to European forms of furniture.  This suite by Dessoir is a variant of that style in that it includes fantastical creatures not traditional to Chinoiserie. In that regard, the carvings reveal Barnum's own personal taste, as well as the skill of the furniture maker.  The overall style of the furniture is called Chinese Chippendale.  The name Chippendale refers to a famous English furniture maker, Thomas Chippendale, who became known in the 1700s for his distinctive designs.  The patterned upholstery material on the settee is a reproduction of the antique fabric that was found on it; the red velvet and golden color gimp trimming the edges are also modern replacements.

Julius Dessoir was a French emigre who came to America in the 1840s. The first listing of his work as a cabinetmaker appears in the 1842-1843 New York City directory.  His furniture workshop was located on Broadway, as was Barnum's American Museum.  Dessoir became well known for his decorative carving, and his work was exhibited at the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1853 in New York City.  Other examples of Dessoir's work can be found in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Dessoir's work for Barnum was done within the first decade of his arrival in America.  Barnum had returned from a three-year tour of Europe in 1846 and was anxious to build an "oriental villa" as the family home in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  Iranistan, as he named it, was designed in the Moorish revival style by Leopold Eidlitz, but was very closely modeled after the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England.  The mansion, which sat on 17 acres and was built at a cost of $100,000, lasted only ten years (1848-1857), as it burned to the ground on December 17, 1857.  Either the Dessoir suite was located elsewhere at the time of the fire (Barnum and his family were not occupying the home then) or else it was pulled from the burning house.  Contemporary descriptions do note that precious items were saved.  The set was donated to the museum in 1888 by Barnum and his second wife, Nancy Fish Barnum.

 

 

Object Type
furniture
associated with
Dimensions
36 in H X 66 in W X 28 in D
Measurement Types: Item (Overall)
Accession/ID number
1888.001.002