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Painted Chairs with Cynthia

Martha Stewart Living Television

Martha enjoys searching for antique American painted furniture at flea markets, consignment shops, and antique stores. Today she invites Cynthia Schaffner, co-author of "American Painted Furniture, 1790-1880," to point out important details you should consider when evaluating such furniture -- specifically, painted chairs from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Cynthia begins with a brace-back Windsor chair from the 1760s. The chair has a dark, nearly black finish, but Cynthia explains that the color has deepened with age from its original green, the vestiges of which are discernible when you beam a flashlight onto the wood.

Dark green was the color of most original Windsor chairs, which were often made of several woods, and then painted for a uniform appearance. Because of this, Cynthia recommends you never strip the paint from an antique chair with the intention of exposing the original wood. The presence of the original paint also makes the chair more valuable -- collectors value the distinctive pattern of wear and unique color patina of each chair.

A second chair is from southeastern Pennsylvania and dates back approximately to 1825. It is a slatted-back Windsor chair, lighter and smaller than the first chair, and painted with decorative motifs. Its ornamentation includes a series of markings meant to resemble bamboo stalks; bamboo furniture was popular during this period.

Cynthia turns the chair over to demonstrate a way of quickly tell whether or not a chair is still painted its original hue. Look at the wood where the chair legs meet the underside of the base; this is where a paintbrush usually leaves a telltale halo of color that, because it is out of sight, is rarely disguised. If the chair’s original color were different, you would be most likely to find traces of that paint in this area.

A third chair is an example of a "fancy chair" from the first decade of the nineteenth century. The chair is colorful; much of it is painted Venetian red, and some of its decoration is gilded. Fancy chairs such as this were often purchased in suites for the parlor, and placed around the perimeter of the room where they would stay until they were put to use around a table or in conversational groupings.