African, Mangbetu peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo
39.37 cm (15 1/2 in.)
Medium or Technique
Wood, bark, vegetable fiber
Richard B. Carter Gallery (Gallery 171)
The royal court of the Mangbetu, founded in the 18th century, commanded significant wealth because of its control of regional trade. Luxury objects, like this jewelry box, were made for courtiers or for gift or sale to Europeans seeking the court’s support with trading partners further south. A small inscription under the left foot suggests that the container was once owned by the firm founded by Johann Friedrich Gustav Umlauff (1833-89), a ship’s carpenter who developed a successful business dealing in art and ethnographic objects from his sailing contacts. Based in Hamburg, Umlauff sold pieces to ethnographic museums eager to prove that the colonial project was justified by the ‘primitive’ nature of the occupied cultures. The man who made this container, however, was a sophisticated businessman as well as a skilled artist. Jewelry boxes for members of the Mangbetu court were generally decorated with geometric patterns and set on bases in the shape of a woman’s stool. But European colonial officials preferred figurative sculptures to abstract designs, and so by the later 19th century artists increasingly made decorative arts in highly anthropomorphic form.
1890s, acquired in Africa and became part of the collection of Firma J. F. G. Umlauff, Hamburg. Merton Simpson (dealer), New York. Thomas Alexander (dealer), St. Louis [see note]. June 10, 1988, sold by Maurice Bonnefoy (dealer), New York and Garennes-sur-Eure, France, to William and Bertha Teel, Marblehead, MA; 1992, partial gift of William and Bertha Teel to the MFA; 2014, acquired fully with the bequest of William Teel to the MFA. (Accession Dates: June 30, 1992 and February 26, 2014)
NOTE: Yale Van Rijn Archive of African Art, no. 0028271.
Gift of William E. and Bertha L. Teel