Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Dresser (Dressoir aux harpies)

ca. 1570–90, and 19th century
French (Ile-de-France or Burgundo-Lyonnais)
Carved walnut with interior elements of oak, pine; iron locks and hinges.
H. 144.8 cm, W. 137.8 cm, D. 50.8 cm
Credit Line:
Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 1975.1.2034
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 953
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The platform, sections of the carved harpy-shaped term support, and the framing of the four back panels of the lower part have been replaced, most likely following the original design. Further restorations were made to the upper cabinet, such as major parts of the dentils and the rear caryatid on the left side. There are no feet. The plain rectangular fields in the frieze of the entablature, surrounded by an inlaid double line, may have been initially painted to imitate colorful marble or semiprecious stones, as documented by a related dressoir in Écouen (Fig. 134.1).(1) Such sumptuous decoration is traditionally associated with cabinets made in the Île-de-France, the French cultural center during the second half of the sixteenth century.(2) However, the carving style and the cost-saving technique of trompe-l’oeil painting seen here can be found on pieces produced in areas near Dijon and Lyon.(3) The plain, unfinished top and the cabinet’s overall low proportions suggest that a superstructure is missing. That element may have been stepped, and covered on special occasions with expensive textiles or Oriental carpets for the display of precious objects such as silver plate or ceramics.(4) The significant group of majolica in the Robert Lehman Collection would aptly dress such a furniture type, approximating Renaissance decor.(5) The stylized feather headdresses crowning the grotesque masks in the center of each of the two doors are intriguing (see detail ill.). The motif may allude to Native American culture, symbolizing the hitherto unknown treasures of the New World that a prosperous owner could store in the spacious compartments behind the lockable doors. The abundance of carved elements, and their imaginative combination and appearance, reflect the dominant horror vacui principle of the period. In the wake of the École de Fontainebleau, artists created an immense variety of ornament designs that could be endlessly adapted.(6) Like stucco and marble, wood was well suited for translating these two-dimensional sources into nearly three-dimensional works of art.

Catalogue entry from: Wolfram Koeppe. The Robert Lehman Collection. Decorative Arts, Vol. XV. Wolfram Koeppe, et al. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 208-10.

1. Le dressoir du prince: Services d’apparat a la Renaissance. Exhibition, Musee National de la Renaissance, Chateau d’Ecouen, 18 October 1995 –19 February 1996. Catalogue. Paris, 1995, p. 32, no. 2; Parures d’or et de pourpre: Le mobilier a la cour des Valois. Exhibition, Chateau de Blois, 15 June – 30 September 2002. Catalogue by Jacques Thirion et al. Paris and Blois, 2002, pp. 130 – 31, no. 27.
2. Koeppe, Wolfram. Die Lemmers-Danforth-Sammlung Wetzlar: Europäische Wohnkultur aus Renaissance und Barock. Heidelberg, 1992, pp. 81 – 84, nos. m15, m16; Chateau de Blois 2002, p. 137, no. 30.
3. Compare the “armoire Arconati-Visconti” at the Louvre, Paris (Blois 2002, pp. 132 – 35, no. 28). See also Boccador, Jacqueline. Le mobilier français du Moyen Âge a la Renaissance. Saint-Just-en-Chaussee, 1988, figs. 157, 158, for the feather or palmette hair ornament and also figs. 171, 178, 195 (superstructure), 157 (marbleizing). For the type, see the cabinet illustrated (as Burgundy, ca. 1560 – 70) in Biennale des antiquaires 1988, stand 35 (Gabrielle Laroche, Paris).
4. Koeppe 1992, p. 80 (the historical photograph shows a now lost superstructure on a dresser in the Lemmers-Danforth collection, Wetzlar, Germany). A stepped display support was at times also made as a simple wood structure that was covered with fine linen or a patterned textile that was removed after the festivities; see Écouen 1995 – 96, figs. 7, 8.
5. Rasmussen, Jorg. The Robert Lehman Collection. Vol. 10, Italian Majolica. Introduction by Johanna Lessmann. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1989.
6. For example, the inventions of Antonio Fantuzzi (active France 1537 – 45) and René Boyvin (ca. 1525 – ca. 1625), or the specialized furniture designs by Jacques Androuet Ducerceau (ca. 1520 – 1585/86); see Zerner, Henri. Die Schule von Fontainebleau: Das graphische Werk. Vienna, 1969; Jervis, Simon. Printed Furniture Designs before 1650. Leeds, 1974, pp. 65 – 68 (compare the harpies); The French Renaissance in Prints from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Exhibition, Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, 1 November 1994 – 1 January 1995; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 12 January – 19 March 1995; Bibliotheque Nationale de France, 20 April – 10 July 1995. Catalogue by Henri Zerner et al. Los Angeles, 1994, pp. 301 – 2, no. 72, pp. 368 – 72, nos. 121 – 23; Wardropper, Ian. “The Flowering of the French Renaissance.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., 62, no. 1, 2004 (Summer), p. 20.
Robert Lehman, New York
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