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Radio Chipstone: The Empty Chair

Photo courtesy of Chipstone Foundation
Thomas Hicks' painting 'Kitchen Interior' currently on display in The Chipstone Foundation Galleries in the Constance and Dudley Godfrey American Art Wing at the Milwaukee Art Museum Cosmos

If you are are of a certain age, you may remember All in the Family, a popular sitcom from the 1970's. In that show, Archie and Edith Bunker's chairs functioned as characters on par with the actors. These chairs were so important that when one of the lead characters died, the empty chair was one of the closing scenes.

Credit Jim Wildeman
Armchair, Philadelphia, ca. 1730, Mahogany, The Chipstone Foundation, 2013.17

While Archie Bunker's chair is now on exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., Thomas Hicks' 1865 painting Kitchen Interior,  alongside an actual chair that resembles the one in the painting, is currently displayed in the Milwaukee Art Museum via the Chipstone Foundation.
Sarah Anne Carter is the Director of Research for the Foundation. She says that it's no coincidence that Kitchen Interior was painted in the end of 1865, the end of the American civil war.

"This chair is likely referring to the whole range of poems and songs, this 'cultural trope of the empty chair,'" she says. "A chair that was set out for someone who is not coming back, someone who was lost in the war. That could be her son, husband, friend. The empty chair is not just empty, it's vacant. Someone has vacated that chair, and it's a reminder of that loss."

As seen in All in the Family, this message has been relevant up through the 1970's and today.

Material culture contributor Gianofer Fields curates the Radio Chipstone series. The project is funded by the Chipstone Foundation, a decorative arts foundation whose mission is preserving and interpreting their collection, as well as stimulating research and education in the decorative arts.