Detail: left panel
Herter Brothers (American, 1865–1905)
Object Place: New York City, New York
133.35 x 184.78 x 38.42 cm (52 1/2 x 72 3/4 x 15 1/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Maple, bird's-eye maple, oak or chestnut, stamped and gilt paper, with gilding, inlay, and carved decoration; original brass pulls and key
Robert P. and Carol T. Henderson Gallery (Gallery 228)
Large rectangular cabinet supported on four short front legs terminating in animal-paw feet and four straight rear legs; main body of cabinet contains an arched niche at each side, with a small drawer above and below, flanking a central door with inlaid Asian motifs, including irises, flowers, reeds, dragonflies, and a painted butterfly, and with a bird’s-eye maple panel at top; carved and pierced panel below cupboard; lower section with a flat, slightly projecting top with molded edge; upper section includes a large box at center decorated at front with carved and gilt columns; splash board has rounded ends and, along with the entire back, is covered with stamped gilt paper with painted/stenciled rosettes; brass mounts, pulls, and key.
Representing the highest level of art furniture, this elegant cabinet expresses the vocabulary of the Japonesque taste in a rich variety of materials. Its spare and linear form is Neoclassical in character, but its rectilinear design is enlivened by asymmetrical ornament derived from such sources as Japanese screens and woodblock prints. As on the Gorham punch bowl (p. x-ref.), the marquetry decoration of the cabinet celebrates Japanese naturalistic ornament. The panels depict extraordinarily detailed insect and plant life, including tiny beetles munching holes in the leaves on the top panel. Another striking feature is the stamped and stenciled gilt paper that lines the niches and splashboard. Several furniture makers, including Herter Brothers, used textiles to line shelves and niches on furniture in this period, but elaborate paper used in this manner rarely survived. The gold paper, embossed with an intricate pattern, was stenciled with reddish-brown flowers scattered irregularly across the surface. The flowers vary in size and shape, rhythmically echoing the floral motifs of the carved and inlaid panels.
Herter Brothers, headed by Gustav Herter and his half brother Christian, produced some of New York’s finest furniture in a rich and eclectic array of styles in the post-Civil War period. A pencil inscription on the back of this cabinet reads “N. 908 Harriman Esq.,” suggesting that it may have been made for financier Edward Henry Harriman. Harriman made his money at a young age on Wall Street and in railroads, and was described by contemporaries as both “dashing” and “cold and ruthless.” Although his ownership of the cabinet is not certain, the piece represents the costly, sometimes one-of-a-kind designs that Herter Brothers produced for Harriman’s peers, the robber-baron elite.
This text was adapted from Ward, et al., MFA Highlights: American Decorative Arts & Sculpture (Boston, 2006) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.
Signed in pencil on back "N. 908, Harriman Esq. "
Stamped "HERTER BROS" twice on back.
Probably owned originally by Harriman family, possibly Edward Henry Harriman (1848-1909) of the railroad industry; purchased from Margot Johnson, Inc., a New York City dealer, by the Museum in 2000 (Accession Date: January 26, 2000)
Museum purchase with funds donated anonymously and the Frank B. Bemis Fund