An Exceptional Cabinet From a One-of-a-Kind Furniture Suite

April 30 2014, 3:52pm

Carlton Hobbs LLC The present cabinet belongs to the only known suite of furniture produced by the French craftsman named Chifflot. All the pieces are signed and dated, including the cabinet, which was made in 1846-47. A related armoire, 1848 (figure 1), was sold in the art trade 2001; a bedside cabinet, 1853 (figure 2), and dressing table, 1859 (figure 3), were sold in 2002; an; and a day bed, 1853, is currently in the art trade. Figure 1 Chifflot’s name appears in the official catalog for the 1855 Exposition des produits de l’industrie de toutes les nations in Paris, No. 7903, where he is described as exhibiting a set of painted bedroom furniture. With the exception of the later dressing table, the Exposition suite may well be the same group mentioned above, to which the present cabinet belongs. Figure 2 Figure 3 We do know, however, that Chifflot’s  designs were influenced by the engravings of Baroque printmaker Jacques Callot (circa 1592-1635) and contemporary French caricaturist Jean Grandville (1803-1847), whose illustrations inspired some of the decoration on the aforementioned armoire, namely Grandville’s Scène de la Vie Privée et Publique des Animaux (Paris, 1842) on the lower left door panel (figure 4), and Callot’s La tentation de Saint Antoine (1635) on the frieze. The frieze of the present cabinet features two opposing characters from the Commedia dell’Arte, which were no doubt influenced by Callot’s famous set of engravings of the subject, Balli di Sfessania, circa 1622. Figure 4 Figure 5 Furniture design of the mid-nineteenth century was influenced by a return to the past. The reign of Louis Philippe, self-titled “King of the French” (r. 1830-1848), was impacted by political divisions between Legitimist Bourbons and Republicans, and he relied on the glories of French history and the arts to unite the nation during his rule. “Furniture of the period reflected his reconciliatory agenda,” and was marked by successive revivals of various historical styles. The prevailing neoclassical taste was, little by little, influenced by romanticism, as well as elements of renaissance and gothic design, which blended to give birth to the ”gothic-troubadour” style. Colors became brighter, as in the work of the architect Jacques-Ignace Hittorf (see Catalog No. 18), and the porcelain and textile designer Jacques-Louis de La Hamayde de Saint-Ange (1780-1860), and the architect and designer Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879). Detail, Carlton Hobbs LLC The decoration of Chifflot’s pieces is marked by an extremely eclectic and colorful blend of neoclassical and chinoiserie motifs with botanical and zoological imagery, on a painted black ground. On the present piece, the roundel of the left hand door is decorated with monkeys in medieval garb amongst flowers, fruit trees, and scrolling foliage. The European tradition of anthropomorphizing monkeys in art was popularized in the 17th century by David Teniers the Younger, who first portrayed the animal in clothing, and performing human activities. In 1753 the Meissen porcelain manufactory produced a set of figurines designed by Johann Joachim Kaendler, depicting a monkey orchestra, or Affenkapelle, a group that was reproduced by other porcelain manufactories for centuries to come. On this cabinet door, two monkeys sit on vines toward the bottom of the roundel, near the top a troubadour monkey plays a lute and another holds a baby, and the final monkey, with sword and cape, stands in the center. Fruits and flower bulbs dangle from the vines like pendants, and indeed a hanging cabochon is hidden among the foliage. Detail, Carlton Hobbs LLC In the circular vignette of the right hand door, a choir of birds of all species gathers around an eagle to sing from a page of sheet music in its claws. The musical arrangement does not appear to represent an extant melody, but the imagined trilling of birdsong. The notion of replicating the call of birds has existed in formal musical composition for centuries. The renaissance composer Clement Janequin wrote long, descriptive chansons that often included imitations of natural and man-made sounds, particularly his onomatopeic Le chant des oiseaux (circa 1520), “in which the singers do not so much sing as make bird-calls to one another.”1 In the early 18th century, Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi produced his most famous work, The Four Seasons (1723), comprising four violin concertos each representing a season. The best-known, La Primavera, mimics springtime and opens with high-pitched trills, a rapid alternation between two notes that are a half-step apart, much like what is represented on the sheet music of the present cabinet. Toward the end of the century, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart used birdsong in The Magic Flute (1790) for his character Papageno, the bird-catcher. In fact, Mozart kept a pet starling, and the purchase of the bird is recorded in 1784 along with the transcription of a tune the bird whistled, oddly similar to his Piano Concerto in G major, K.453. The bird is not mentioned again for three years, until Mozart writes of its funeral a poem he composed for the occasion. Soon afterward he finished The Musical Joke, a disjointed and “deliberately clumsy”2 piece widely viewed as a satire on inept composers, however he may also have been paying tribute to the fractured and off-key songs of his avian companion. Detail, Carlton Hobbs LLC There is a hugely imaginative element to Chifflot’s secondary decoration as well. The circular vignettes of the doors are enclosed in unusual sixteen-sided polygons, while geometric patterns, classical rinceaux, and arabesques are juxtaposed in the borders of the doors, sides and top. Each side of the cabinet features a fanciful tableau of unusual proportions. On the left side, a snake is wound on a branch beside a large and bulbous flowering plant and faces a flock of exotic-looking birds, while butterflies and insects—some as large as the birds—fly above. The composition is reminiscent of contemporary natural history prints in which various species of fauna were illustrated together.  The right side of the cabinet is painted with a chinoiserie scene in which a bridge, suspended mainly in thin air, winds it’s way from an outbuilding to a colorful pagoda with a man and a phoenix standing just outside. Humungous seashells dot the landscape, while a large exotic tree bearing different types of fruit and flowers, and on which perches a gigantic butterfly, occupies most of the panel. Detail, Carlton Hobbs LLC