Gustave Herter and his brother, Christian (1839-1883), emigrated in 1848 and 1859 respectively from their native Germany to New York City, where they became foremost among cabinetmakers and decorators in America. They were among the first in the nineteenth century to expand the traditional role of the cabinetmaker by creating entire interiors.
The early history of the Gustave Herter firm is little known because of a paucity of commercial records and personal papers. Thus, Gustave Herter's achievements have been overshadowed by Christian's until recent research brought them into sharper focus. Gustave Herter was born Julius Gustav Alexander Hagenlocher in Stuttgart, Germany, and was later given the surname of Christian Herter (1807-1874), a local cabinetmaker who was privileged to call himself an "ebenist," indicating that he worked for the Wurttemberg court. No doubt Gustave Herter intended to enter Christian Herter's profession, but when he came of age in 1848 Europe was in economic and social turmoil. Consequently, he sailed for America along with thousands of others.
In New York City Gustave Herter joined the third largest German-speaking community in the world. Educated and skilled, Germans dominated several important industries in the city, including cabinetmaking, which was concentrated below Fourteenth Street in a section then known as Klein-deutschland (Little Germany). In a remarkably short time, however, Herter distinguished himself among the high-style cabinetmakers located on lower Broadway, the cultural and commercial heart of the city. One of these, Edward W. Hutchings (1807-1889), introduced Herter to others in the trade, and by 1851 Herter had formed a partnership with Auguste Pottier (1823-1896), formerly a journeyman sculptor in Hutchings's shop. Pottier later became an important cabinetmaker and decorator and Herter's strongest competitor. A single trade card showing a Louis XV revival parlor suite is the only evidence of Herter's collaboration with Pottier.
Starting in 1853 Herter became affiliated with Erastus Bulkley. Having worked in New York City since 1818, the well-established Bulkley brought capital to the enterprise while Herter contributed his "good abilities as a designer of patterns for rich furniture" and supervised the manufactory. In 1858 Herter bought out Bulkley's share of the business, operating as "Gustave Herter" until 1864, when he made Christian his partner and changed the firm's name to Herter Brothers. Gustave Herter was active in the firm until his retirement in 1870..
In 1853 Gustave Herter designed three extraordinary pieces of furniture for the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York City: a monumental oak sideboard, a Gothic revival bookcase, and a "richly carved walnut buffet." Observers attending the exhibition astutely noted the influence of European immigrants on the furniture there.
Indeed, virtually all the great midmine-teenth-century New York City cabinetmakers were born in Europe. Unfettered by the tradition of guild regulations and blessed with an enormously rich clientele, they exploited artistic freedom, superb craftsmanship due to the influx of skilled artisans, and an abundance both of materials and decorative techniques, which they combined innovatively. Thus the New York City cabinetmakers distinguished themselves as American despite the influence of their European heritage, and particularly of French taste, on their designs.
Gustave Herter supplied furniture and woodwork for Oakwood (1859-1865), the Romanesque-style residence of Henry Probasco (1820-1902) in Cincinnati, Ohio. In New York City he created a drawing room of carved oak, ebony, and gilding for Dr. Thomas Ward (1807-1873) on West Forty-seventh Street; furnishings for the library in the house of J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) on West Twenty-first Street; furnishings for the library in the house of John A. C. Gray on Fifth Avenue; and unspecified work, perhaps display cases, for Tiffany and Company. In 1861 it was noted that Herter had "a contract for gun stocks with which he will do well." Statistics in the 1860 census of United States Products of Industry suggest that Herter had a very busy practice. At that time he employed one hundred men whose salaries totaled $4,800 a month and who produced sofas, chairs, center tables, and ornamental work worth $121,500 annually. His stock included forty thousand feet of black walnut and fifteen thousand feet of oak.
Several Herter cabinets dating to the first half of the 1860's that belong stylistically to the neo-Grec style then popular in Paris have in common a large oval repousse plaque depicting Oxpheus holding his lyre and ascending from Hades. The plaques were once thought to be unique to the Herter cabinets, but they appear on cabinets by other American makers and may have been imported from France. The other ornamentation on this group of Herter cabinets varies. The one shown here is distinguished by large gilded bosses; crisp gilded incising, including Napoleonic wreaths; and bold, partially gilded lotus feet that bear some resemblance to those on some Boston furniture of the mid-1820's to the mid-1830's. The blue panels are made of lapis lazuli to replace the original blue composition material that had deteriorated.
In April 1860 Herter was commissioned to create a case for the Steinway Piano being made in Germany for the Boston Music Hall (Pls. II, XII, XIIa, XIIb). The towering facade is "almost exactly the size of a first-class, five-storied city house," as one reporter commented.(18) The woodwork was probably completed early in 1863 before the arrival of the organ in March from E. F. Walcker and Company of Ludwigsburg, Germany. The opening ceremony and concert were held on November 2, 1863, with Christian Herter in attendance.
HERTER ART CASE STEINWAY GRAND PIANO
This important instrument is the very first art-case piano that Steinway & Sons ever made. It also is one of the earliest grand pianos that the company ever made.
It was built in 1857, only seven years after Heinrich Steinway arrived in the U.S. from Germany. He built it with the expertise that he and his family had already accumulated in the piano making craft. The workbench on which he made this piano can still be seen at Steinway Hall in New York City.
Apart from a spectacular playing instrument, this piano remains one of the most important Steinways ever built as a work of art. It is very likely that Heinrich was involved with the casework, since the woodwork on the outside is neatly integrated with the painted designs on the cast iron plate under the strings on the inside.
The case of solid Brazilian rosewood carvings were done by Gustav Herter, the later of the Herter Brothers, the most important American cabinetmakers in the U.S. in the third quarter of the 19th century. In any case, it is obvious that musical instrument maker and furniture maker worked very closely together on this instrument.
This piano is ready for professional concert play. 88 Keys, completely rebuilt with all new German Steinway parts. This fantastic case is rosewood & has a French polish finish. It has inlaid leaves on both sides of piano. The carvings are unsurpassed in beauty and quality. Probably the finest piano offered in the United States today. The after market modifications might well have been done by the American cabinet maker, Herter Brothers. Even the Steinway label is inlaid wood. The sound of this piano is indescribable. Clear as sound could possibly be.
This one-of-a-kind, first Steinway art-case grand piano serial # #37880 is currently available for play at Antiquarian Traders 9031 W. Olympic Bvld West Olympic Blvd. in Beverly Hills, CA.
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Antiquarian Traders stocks a variety of antique Herter Brothers furniture including antique Herter chairs, and antique Herter parlor sets. Any of our antique Herter Brothers parlor sets can be purchased in "as is" condition or restored to perfect "Mint" condition. View Stock
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LAST UPDATED: 11th FEB 2008