Leopard Chest


Object Place: Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States


84.77 x 126.68 x 45.72 cm (33 3/8 x 49 7/8 x 18 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Basswood, oil paint, gold leaf

Not On View


Americas, Contemporary Art


Case furniture and boxes

Carved chest-on-legs with gilded leopards intertwined with black plants on a reddish background. Top has rubbed black framing with carved, painted leopard images on outside and inside.

After earning a degree in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, Judy McKie turned to furniture making in the early 1970s. Her first designs were utilitarian, but as she gained proficiency she desired greater personal expression. Seeking to make “inanimate objects that are animated,” McKie looked to the art of Precolumbian, African, and Native American cultures for inspiration. She developed her own vocabulary of abstracted plants and animals to enliven her works, either as surface decoration or as sculpted structural members.

The stylized, grinning leopards that decorate all sides of this chest represent the best qualities of McKie’s imaginative and expressive carved furniture. McKie created this chest in response to a painted, carved, and gilded one in the MFA’s collection by Charles Prendergast. She shares Prendergast’s interest in using surface decoration to evoke a sense of “primitivism” and mystery. To ornament the “Leopard Chest,” McKie carved and painted the basswood panels, and built up a japanned surface using layers of shellac and boule (a red pigment). She painted the chest and rubbed the frame with cotton to create an aged finish, and then gold leafed, burnished, and rubbed the carved leopards. The result is a richly varied surface that is both elegant and energetic.

McKie uses efficient joinery and plain-figured woods so as not to distract from her designs, and sometimes (as here) she hires other craftsmen to execute the basic case construction. Simplifying the construction process allows her to focus on visual expression through her carving and finishes. She has explained, “I think first of the image. The craftsmanship is very much integrated in the work, but I don’t think it is more important than the idea.”

This text was adapted from Ward, et al., MFA Highlights: American Decorative Arts & Sculpture (Boston, 2006) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.


1989, made by the artist for the "New American Furniture" exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; 1991, purchased by the MFA (Accession date: June 26, 1991)

Credit Line

Museum purchase with funds donated anonymously


© Judy Kensley McKie