Metropolitan Museum – Wood Work

THE art of the woodworker was barely illustrated until the Georges Hoentschel Collection was placed on exhibition, covering work of the Gothic period and of the 18th century. Supplemented by gifts and from other sources there is now being brought together a department of the Decorative Arts as applied to woodwork or furniture which promises to become one of the most important in the Museum’s collections. A tentative survey of the woodworker’s art in various countries may already be had, the French work forming the best supplied section.

Taking up first the specimens of carved work from France we can trace these from the 15th century Gothic, through Renaissance to the period of Louis XVI. In the 15th century the Gothic lost its pure form of the arch, and the simplicity of line, and became more flamboyant, eliminating any impression of heaviness. Geometrical lines and delicately depicted foliage melt into each other and produce a restless, flickering play of line, with higher relief.

A fine example is a seat with a baldachino. Its ornament consists of the so-called ” parchment scroll ” pattern, which intended to break the smooth surface by the play of light and shade afforded by relief, even to a delicate openwork pattern in the baldachino of the seat. We find further a set of choir-stalls, beautifully carved. Two panels of choir-stalls with carved saints belong to the 14th century, the Golden Age of the Gothic style. In the later domestic and ecclesiastical furniture we notice ornament becoming more exuberant and riotous, as seen in chest-fronts, in fine examples of decorative tracery (among which is the “linen-fold pattern “), and in an interesting Reredos, the carved screen for the back of an altar.

Of the Renaissance of the 16th century there is a cabinet, crowned with a pediment and enriched with small marble panels. The four doors are carved with graceful female figures bearing musical instruments. There are also cabinets of 1547 to 1560, and chests of the same period. The beautiful, rich and sumptuous style of decoration is shown in various garlands, festoons, brackets, screens, balustrades, chairs, tables, doors and panels.

Eight pilaster fronts are among the most perfect and exquisite examples of wood carving in existence. These are sculptured from designs by Salembier, a notable designer and engraver in the time ‘of Louis XVI. He excelled in ” sculptures in the flat,” and these panels bear witness to his elegance of style, being carved with foliage, vases of flowers, torches, caryatides, cups, birds, fowls, grotesques and monograms. The panels were originally painted and gilt, but have been successfully cleaned so that one may now study the crispness of the carving and the full modelling.

Under Louis XVI Reisener and David Roentgen (represented here) made beautiful furniture in rosewood, tulip and maple, with gilt-bronze fittings by Gouthiere. There is also a large quantity of ormolu decorations, such as were affixed to furniture, made by the most famous designers of the period, which will offer artisans an inexhaustible supply of suggestion and inspiration.

Buhl-work was made by the brothers Andre and Charles Boule in 1680, and consists in a veneer of tortoise shell, inlaid with copper, of which we find some examples.

Less exhaustive and more as a nucleus the art of the English cabinet makers of the 18th century is shown. Two tendencies are to be recognized, one indicating the Dutch, the other the French influence. Dutch influence is shown in the cyma curve, carried out in all parts, producing the cabriole or bandy legs, terminating in bird’s claws and ball-feet, and in the use of the slat. The French influence is divided between Louis XV and Louis XVI styles. To the former belong the Chippendales (up to about 1770), the distinguishing features of which are the use of Rococo scrolls, and the bow-shaped back. The Sheratons belong to the later style.

In comparison with the French the Dutch and Flemish furniture seems somewhat simpler, and the carved features slightly heavier. Marqueterie was made principally in Holland and consists in different-coloured woods laid one into the other. Some famous cabinets and panels illustrate this peculiar style. An antique sleigh, which type is, however, still in use, comes from Holland.

German cabinets and wardrobes of the 16th and 17th centuries, and a unique cradle are truly characteristic. Their decorations show the revolt against Gothic influence and style.

Swiss woodwork of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries shows little variation in style, indicating a loyalty to tradition which is characteristic of peasant-work. The design is not very highly developed and is suggested by natural surroundings, the flowers of the Alps, edelweiss, harebells, gentian and Alpine roses being the chief motifs. The back is typical of Switzerland, an opening in the centre allows the chair to be easily lifted. The complete woodwork of an 18th century room comes from Flints, Switzerland.

Italian Renaissance furniture remains unsurpassed for fineness of proportion, beauty of relief and outline, and dignity of design. There are two chests, or marriage coffers, with gesso work, a composition decoration both painted and gilt. Two other chests are of carved wood, one early Florentine with its severe lines, the other later Venetian with richer decoration. We note also a cradle of the first half of the 16th century; a casket, inlaid with pearl, and painted, of the 15th century ; and the front of a cassone or chest, representing the taking of Salermo by Robert Guiscard, probably of 1420. It is a fine example of decorative painting in bits of flat colour, strongly accentuated by the frequent use of black.

There are not many specimens of American furniture, which is to be regretted. The styles of the Georges came over in colonial times to America, but instead of being affected at once by continental influences, especially the Empire style, as was the case in England, the English styles in the colonies were carried out to greater perfection. Note-worthy are a ladderback chair, American make, with five horizontal slats, instead of four, the usual number. In carving and surfaces it is equal to the best English work of the period. Following the chests-of-drawers which came into fashion about 1680, American cabinet makers made what is usually called a ” high-chest ” of drawers (hautboy), in reality a set of drawers placed upon legs, six turned or four bandy-shaped legs. A six-legged piece, made about 1750, illustrates this style.

To indicate the breadth of choice we may turn to some Arabian woodwork, with ivory inlay; a carved and gilded wooden stairway, Spanish work ; and Persian work in the doors from the Palace of Ispahan, which was built by Shah Abbas (1587-1628), one of the most enlightened and progressive rulers of that time. It was called the ” Palace of the forty Columns,” and a pair of painted and lacquered doors from the principal hall of the palace may be studied here. The decorative treatment reminds of the late 13th century tapestries in Europe. It consists of seated figures upon a dark flower-strewn ground, the framework having sprays of flowers, each petal and leaf delicately out-lined with gold.

Lacquer work is eminently Oriental. The Chinese and Japanese lacquers are made with the resin extracted from a certain tree. The gum, soft and transparent when fresh, turns black and hard on exposure to the atmosphere. The gum is sometimes mixed with gold, and sometimes gilt only on the surface. The Chinese red lacquer is made from cinnabar, which Is carved after the successive layers applied to the piece have become thick enough. It is called lu-chu (the fiery dragon) or Sou-chou. The foundation is woodwork, and several magnificent examples of this curious work may be seen. A Japanese Buddhist shrine, and a Burmese shrine of Buddha indicate the marvellous fecundity of artistic invention in decoration of the Oriental artists. One of the world’s wonders is the profuse carving on the temple of Nikko. The three monkeys, to represent sight, hearing and speech, so much in evidence there, are also found in some of the specimens in the Oriental section. A fine example of Sou-chou lacquer is an ancient ancestral tablet ; while carved rosewood, a Daimio chair, and various other articles proclaim the art of the Japanese woodworker.

One of the latest additions to the Museum’s treasures has been a magnificent Chinese twelve-fold screen, of the K’ang-hsi period (1662-1722), which is a masterpiece in colour, design, and technique. It represents the Summer Palace in Pekin, with the Emperor sitting on the throne and watching the dance of two girls.