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Klismos chair, on the stele of Xanthippos, Athens, ca. 430-20 BCE.
A klismos (Greek) or klismos chair is a type of ancient Greek chair, with curved backrest and tapering, outcurved legs.
Klismoi are familiar from depictions of ancient furniture on painted pottery and in bas-reliefs from the mid-fifth century BCE onwards. In epic, klismos signifies an armchair, but no specific description is given of its form; in Iliad xxiv, after Priam's appeal, Achilles rises from his thronos, raises the elder man to his feet, goes out to prepare Hector's body for decent funeral and returns, to take his place on his klismos.
A vase-painting of a satyr carrying a klismos chair on his shoulder shows how light such chairs were. The curved, tapered legs of the klismos chair sweep forward and rearward, offering stability. The rear legs sweep continuously upward to support a wide concave backrest like a curved tablet, which supports the sitter's shoulders, or which may be low enough to lean an elbow on.
The klismos fell from general favour during the Hellenistic period; nevertheless, the theatre of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis, Athens, of the first century CE, has carved representations of klismoi. Where a klismos is represented in Roman portraits of seated individuals, the sculptures are copies of Greek works. The fall of the klismos might be due to a design flaw, the legs of the chair are bending outwards and without any further support the legs will spread out and break when sat upon.
Sculpture group with a man seated in a klismos at the Getty Museum.
The klismos was revived during the second, archaeological phase of European neoclassicism. Klismos chairs were first widely seen in Paris in the furniture made for the painter Jacques-Louis David by Georges Jacob in 1788, to be used as props in David's historical paintings, where the new sense of historicism required visual authenticity. It would be hard to find a French klismos chair earlier than the ones designed by the architect Jean-Jacques Lequeu in 1786 for a decor in the "Etruscan style" for the hôtel Montholon, boulevard Montmartre, and executed by Jacob; the furnishings have disappeared, but the watercolor designs are conserved in the Cabinet des Estampes. Simon Jervis has noted that Joseph Wright of Derby included the tablet of an approximation of a klismos chair in his Penelope Unraveling Her Web, 1783-84 (J. Paul Getty Museum).
In London, early klismos chairs were designed by Thomas Hope for his house in Duchess Street, London, which George Beaumont had described as early as 1804 as "more a Museum than anything else"; klismos chairs were illustrated by Hope in several variations in Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807), the record of his semi-public house-museum. Klismos chairs in their purest form furnished Hope's Picture Gallery (pl. II) and the Second Room containing Greek Vases (pl. IV), but the swept legs featured in variations on the classical theme illustrated in other plates. Henry Moses' illustration of genteel company playing cards seated on klismos chairs appeared in Hope's Designs of Modern Costume (c. 1812).
By the presence of fashionable klismos chairs and a collection of Greek vases, a self-portrait of Adam Buck and his family, significantly, was formerly thought to represent Thomas Hope. Klismos chairs were designed for Packington Hall, Warwickshire, by Joseph Bonomi.
In Philadelphia, the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe designed a set of klismos chairs for an interior in the most advanced neoclassical taste for William Waln's drawing-room, c. 1808. Latrobe's design, painted cream and red on a black background, the "Etruscan" color range, included a panel of caning beneath the tablet backrest and legs that splayed outwards to the sides as well as the front. For the White House, Latrobe's designs of 1809 for klismos chairs are cautiously reinforced with stretchers to render them more sturdy. A range of early 19th-century American klismos chairs were included in the exhibition "Classical Taste in America, 1800-1840", Baltimore Museum of Art, 1993.
Such severely academic revivals might be compromised by more familiar features of the chair-maker's usual practice: an early 19th-century klismos chair by J.E. Höglander, Stockholm has a padded backrest, supported on five slender colonettes, and the faces of the legs are lightly paneled.
The classicizing phase of Modernism allied with Art Deco found the simple lines of the klismos once again in favor: klismos chairs designed by the Danish Edvard Thomspon were illustrated in Architekten, 1922. In 1960, T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings met Greek cabinetmakers Susan and Eleftherios Saridis, and, together, they created the Klismos line of furniture, recreating ancient Greek furnishings with some accuracy, including klismos chairs.
The long and elegant curve was quite difficult to create; and may have been carved from a single piece of wood, or by using mortise and tenon joints, or by bending by steam, or by training the wood.
The seat was built of four wooden turned staves, morticed into the legs; a web of cording or leather strips supported a cushion or a pelt. The klismos was a specifically Greek invention, without detectable earlier inspiration.
^Discussed by R.M.Frazer, "The ? of Achilles Iliad 24.596-98," GRBS12 (1971:295-301); Frazer interprets the lines as not inconsistent; following xenia, the Greek etiquette of hospitality, Achilles gives the thronos to Priam and takes the more modest klismos.
^Gisela M.A. Richter, Furniture of the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans (New York:Phaidon Press) 1966; klismos chairs are illustrated figs. 169-97; 276, 510-14.
^Noted by Wanscher, The Art of Furniture (1966), 16; one illustrated in Margarete Bieber, Die Denkmäler zum Theaterwesen im Altertum (1920), l, 4.
^For example and the seated portrait sculptures in the Capitoline Museums of a female (Wanscher 66-67) and a male (Wanscher 68-69), probably both after 4th-century BCE originals.
^One, purchased for the Fitzwilliam Museum, was illustrated in "Recent Acquisitions at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: Supplement to The Burlington Magazine137 No. 1102 (January 1995:59-64) fig. xix, p. 64
^David Watkin, introduction to Thomas Hope: Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (New York: Dover Reprints) 1971:xiii.
^A klismos chair also appears in his notebook of drawings, c. 1812, now at the RIBA (David Watkin and Jill Lever, "A Sketch-Book by Thomas Hope", Architectural History23 (1980: 52-187) no. 42, p. 56.
^Illustrated in Margaret Jourdain, Regency Furniture, revised ed. 1965, p. 51, fig. 86. An English klismos chair of about 1807 illustrated by Jourdain (fig. 84) is painted "Etruscan" fashion, in terracotta red and black, in imitation of a painted Greek vase, a color scheme called "Etruscan", owing to misconceptions about Greek vases found in Italy.
^The painting is reproduced as the dust cover of John Morley, Regency Design 1790-1840(London: Zwemmer) 1993; reviewing the volume in The Burlington Magazine135 No. 1085 (August 1993:568), Alex Kidson remarked of these iconic trappings representing high culture, "That the modest Buck could have been misidentified as a hugely rich connoisseur, patron and collector, is fascinating and a pointer to an enormous sociological change in the patterns of influence and patronage."
^Klismos chairs in European neoclassicism are discussed in The Age of Neoclassicism, exhibition catalog, 1972, under nos. 1592 (a klismos chair designed by the Danish architect Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard, c. 1800-09 (Museum of Decorative Arts, Copenhagen) and 1644.
^One, conserved at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (acc.no. 1994.189) is illustrated by Peter Kenny, in "North America 1700-1900" The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, 52.2, "Recent Acquisitions: A Selection 1993-1994" (Autumn 1994), p 54.
^"I have resolved to decorate his drawing-room frieze," Latrobe wrote his decorative painter, "with Flaxman's Iliad or Odyssey in flat Etruscan colors, giving only outline on a rich ground" (quoted by Kenny 1994).
^The watercolor designs conserved by the Maryland Historical Society, are illustrated in Peter L. Fodera, Kenneth N. Needleman and John L. Vitagliano, "The Conservation of a Painted Baltimore Sidechair (ca. 1815) Attributed to John and Hugh Finlay", Journal of the American Institute for Conservation36.3 (Autumn - Winter 1997:183-192) fig. 1 p. 184; the painted chair under conservation (fig. 4), attributed to the Finlay workshop of Baltimore, combines klismos-type stiles and outswept rear legs and curved tablet backrest with sturdy turned and tapered front legs.
^One was illustrated in Nadia Tscherny's review in The Burlington Magazine135 No. 1087 (October 1993: fig. 51, p. 716.
^Nordiska Museet, Stockholm; illustrated in Wanscher 1966:376-77.
^Colonnettes forming the rails of chairbacks had been a characteristic feature of Thomas Sheraton's The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing-Book Part III 1793; plates 32-34, 36, all dated 1792, and the Appendix 1794; plates 25, 28, dated 1793, and 49, dated 1794. (Dover reprint, 1992).
^Reproduced in Claire Selkurt, "New Classicism: Design of the 1920s in Denmark", The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, 4 (Spring, 1987:16-29) fig. 7 p. 25.
^Rodkin, Dennis (February 25, 1996), The Gardener, Cllicago Tribul1e Sunday
^"This chair possesses a profound originality unusual in the history of furniture" (Ole Wanscher, The Art of Furniture: 5000 Years of Furniture and Interiors, David Hohnen, tr. [New York/London/Amsterdam: Reinhold] 1966:15; klismos chairs are discussed pp 15-17, illus. pp 63-69; see also Charles Singer, E.J. Holmyard, et al., A History of Technology II: The Mediterranean Civilization and the Middle Ages (Oxford University Press) 1956:22.