In Focus

Fall-front Secretary, 19th century [1997 DMA Guide to the Collection essay]

In the early nineteenth century this type of fall-front secretary was called a "secrétaire à abattant," or French secretary. The form achieved maturity in Paris in the mid-eighteenth century and subsequently spread to other parts of Europe. Although never popular in England, such desks were especially favored in areas dominated by Biedermeier design, namely Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia. The appearance of the fall-front secretary in Philadelphia was likely the result of Continental influence. Some Continental-made examples are known to have been imported into Philadelphia early in the century, as were German and possibly French furniture designs featuring the form.

Unlike other Philadelphia examples, which are very French in their strongly unified design, the Dallas desk is based on Germanic prototypes. At present eight closely related secretaries from the same unidentified shop are known. All these pieces reflect a Germanic predilection for imaginative design in which the façade is an amalgamation of parts, not a unified whole. Here, for example, the columns do not extend the length of the piece, as in a typical French example, but stop halfway, becoming pilasters in the lower section. The upper and lower halves are further differentiated by the orientation of the doors - the central fall being horizontal, those below vertical. Both the use of contrasting burl veneers, inset at various places on the façade, and the emphatic horizontal banding at top, middle, and bottom further fragment the façade.

The desk's relationship to German aesthetics is further suggested by other features. For example, Germanic and Nordic appreciation of contrasting light and dark wood veneers on both interior and exterior surfaces is seen here. A preference for furniture decorated with lightwood was especially prevalent in northern Germany and Scandinavia. Another Germanic trait is the imaginative top; while some desks in this group are surmounted by temple-like drawers, the Dallas desk has a sloping plinth intended to support a light fixture or clock.

Excerpted from

Charles Venable, "Fall-front secretary," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Charles Venable (New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 1997), 223.