In Focus

Chest of drawers [1985.B.39], 1790-1805

The following essay is from the 1989 publication American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, by Charles L. Venable.

Connecticut cabinetmakers have long been criticized for producing eccentric and unsophisticated furniture. This chest refutes this stereotype. The cabinetmaker who designed and built this chest of drawers was aware of the latest London fashion for serpentine-front chests with scrolled-bracket feet and banding around the drawers, top, and feet. Imported, late 18th-century English chests of drawers were probably the prototypes for this and other American examples. Closely related chests were made in Charleston, South Carolina, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Based on the use of light-and-dark banding and scrolled bracket feet, this chest of drawers has long been associated with a bookcase from Providence, Rhode Island, and a small group of idiosyncratic Connecticut Valley pieces. Recent research, however, indicates that these pieces are not as cohesive a group as originally believed. For example, the label of the Providence cabinetmakers Webb and Scott which is on the "Rhode Island" bookcase is now thought to be a later addition. The piece is likely of Connecticut origin.

Besides this desk and bookcase, this group contains two desk and bookcases and a chest of drawers. These three pieces are all believed to be from the Connecticut Valley. However, a comparison between one of these bookcases at Winterthur and the chest of drawers seen here reveals numerous construction differences. This inconsistency suggests that the two were not made in the same shop. Furthermore, the idiosyncratic inlays, relieved corners, and bracket profiles seen on the Winterthur desk and bookcase, as well as on the other related pieces, are not in keeping with the restrained English character of this chest. The existence of two other chests of drawers with possible Connecticut histories which are much closer in character to this example suggests that such chests of drawers were produced by an English-trained or influenced cabinetmaker working in an urban area such as Hartford. Another shop working in a related, but distinct style, probably made the other pieces.

Excerpted from

Charles L. Venable, American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, published in association with the Dallas Museum of Art, 1989), 80-81.