Renwick Gallery announces Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color

Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. presents Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color on view from April 12 through July 28. The exhibition examines the career of Thomas Day (1801-about 1861), who owned and operated one of North Carolina’s most successful cabinet shops before the Civil War. Day’s surviving woodworks represent the finest of 19th-century craftsmanship and aesthetics.

Thomas Day Side chair
Thomas Day, Side chair, 1855–1860, rosewood veneer, mahogany, faux rosewood finish over walnut, and poplar (upholstery not original), Exuberant (French) style, Collection of the North Carolina Museum of History, Donation, Mrs. Priscilla Poteat Upchurch.

During the antebellum years (1820–1861), North Carolina planters used both classical architecture and fine furniture to convey economic status and gentility. Day, whose father was a cabinetmaker, opened his shop in 1827 in Milton, N.C., where he created fine furniture and architectural interiors for an elite clientele. Day’s style is characterized by undulating shapes, fluid lines and spiraling forms. He combined his own unique motifs with popular designs to create a distinctive style readily identified with his shop. Day is the only documented American cabinetmaker to offer clients both architectural elements for their Greek Revival homes and furniture incorporating the same classical motifs. To date, woodwork in about 80 homes in rural North Carolina and Virginia has been attributed to Day.

The rocking chair is an American invention, and those offered by Day were unique in design. Day’s rockers include extended arm supports with tight scrolls that serve as both functional hand rests and decorative features. Day created a fluid line from the front to the back of the chair, introducing a subtle sense of motion through the curvilinear design of arms, supports, seat frame and rockers.

In the 1850s, Day transformed the fashionable French Antique style, with abundant displays of intricate scrolls paired with fruit and foliage designs, into a style known as Day’s Exuberant style. A hallmark of this style is positive and negative space within the design elements, a technique he employed for both furniture forms and architectural elements. Day’s stylistic exuberance reached new heights in fancy display cabinets, called a “whatnot.” An example in the exhibition features pierced gallery shelves with sinuous S-curves and scrolls.

Museum information (recorded): (202) 633-7970. Smithsonian information: (202) 633-1000. Website: americanart.si.edu

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