11026 AN EXQUISITE LOUIS PHILIPPE PERIOD POLYCHROME DECORATED TWO DOOR CABINET BY “CHIFFLOT” French. Signed And Dated Chifflot 1846-47. Measurements: Height: 39 3/4″ (101 cm) Width:49″ (126.5 cm) Depth: 21″ (53.5 cm)
Of polychrome lacquer on black ground, the carcass of oak and poplar. With two drawers to the frieze with two cupboards below opening to reveal three maple veneered sliding trays. The whole raised on a plain plinth with short shaped bracket feet. All extensively decorated with exotic vignettes including ‘troubadour’ monkeys among arabesques, a chorus of tropical birds and palm trees. Signed and dated to lower left hand side Chifflot 1846-1847. In original, unrestored condition.
Bears paper label to reverse:
De La Levade
à Bercy (?)
This extraordinary cabinet belongs to the only known group of five pieces of furniture produced by the French craftsman/designer named Chifflot. All the pieces are signed and dated, including the cabinet, which was made in 1846-47. A related armoire of 1848 (figure 1), was sold in the art trade in 2001; a bedside cabinet of 1853 (figure 2), and dressing table of 1859 (figure 3), were sold in 2002; and a day bed of 1853 completes the group. To date, the only known mention of 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 “meubles peints, pour chambre à coucher.” With the exception of the later dressing table, it is possible that some of the pieces from the aforementioned group are the same as those presented at the Exposition, although the subject matter of the decoration is not described.
Chifflot’s designs drew upon 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 armoire mentioned above, 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 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 Bourbon Legitimists and Republicans, and he drew on the glories of French history and the arts to unite the nation during his rule. “Furniture of the period reflected his reconciliatory agenda,”1 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 Hittorff (see Catalog No. 18), 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).
The decoration of Chifflot’s pieces is marked by a uniquely eclectic and colorful blend of neoclassical and chinoiserie motifs with botanical and zoological imagery, on a lacquered 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 seventeenth century by David Teniers the Younger, who first portrayed the animal in clothing, performing human activities. In 1753 the Meissen porcelain manufactory produced a set of figurines designed by Johann Joachim Kändler, depicting a monkey orchestra, or Affenkapelle, a group that was reproduced by other porcelain manufactories for centuries to come. On this cabinet’s 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 last monkey, with sword and cape, stands in the center. Fruits and flower bulbs dangle from the vines like pendants, and a hanging cabochon is hidden among the foliage.
In the circular vignette of the right hand door, a choir of birds of various 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 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.”2 In the early eighteenth 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 in a poem he composed for the occasion. Soon afterward he finished The Musical Joke, a disjointed and “deliberately clumsy”3 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.
The present cabinet is remarkable not only for its primary figural subject matter, but also the secondary ornament, which is a variant on the classical repertoire and chinoiserie latticework. Additionally, Chifflot exhibits a bold asymmetry in that each of the two doors displays entirely different designs. The decoration of the top is a further departure from the themes of the cabinet’s other vignettes, being a more realistically executed still-life grouping of flowers. 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 populated by landscapes and figures 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 its way from an outbuilding to a colorful pagoda with a man and a phoenix standing just outside. Giant seashells dot the landscape, a large exotic tree bears different types of fruit and flowers, and on it perches a gigantic butterfly, which occupies most of the panel.
It is tempting to believe that the present cabinet and remaining pieces from the known group were produced for a particular client whose demand was for this very singular work. However, the wide range of dates, spanning thirteen years, almost certainly excludes it from being a sole, devoted production. Nevertheless, with its overtly playful and witty decoration, the group knows no parallels.
1. Judith Miller, Furniture: [world Styles from Classical to Contemporary], (New York: DK Pub, 2005), 270.
2. Chris Woodstra, Gerald Brennan and Allen Schrott, All Music Guide to Classical Music: The Definitive Guide to Classical Music, (San Francisco, CA: Backbeat Books, 2005) 659.
3. Ibid., 911.