This tall, narrow cabinet is referred to in French as a half-armoire or, in French, as an homme-debout or bonnetière. Regardless of which French term is employed, the homme-debout and bonnetière represent artisan furniture made on commission and were not produced in industrial quantities.
From a generic standpoint, a tall slim cabinet having a single door is referred to as a half-armoire and is, literally, half the width of the standard, double-doored armoire. Depending on the region and the folklore involved, it appears that some half-armoires were referred to as an homme-debout or standing man. Some believe the origin of the term lies in the Vendée region when, during the French Revolution, armed men were hidden away between battles. At some point along the way, the homme-debout became more closely associated with a design involving a single door at top and bottom separated by a single drawer. Legend has it that the drawer was hollowed out to fool people into thinking it was not an homme-debout but used to conceal the Chouans, Royalist insurgents in the regions of the Loire, Brittany, and Normandy. At the same time, it appears that the designation bonnetière was kept for the version with the single door. Its function was to hold the elaborate and unique headdresses warn by women in regions of France such as the Dauphiné, Périgord, the Vendée, Brittany and Normandy on special occasions but stored on wooden molds in the half-armoire when not in use.
This piece appears to combine the best of both worlds - a single door above a single drawer at the base. Made of solid oak, it boasts a wonderful display of Gothic design elements, which is very unusual since a half-armoire is more closely associated with regional furniture styles.
The beautifully sculpted Gothic tracery or fenestrage comprising this piece is somewhat restrained and is limited to the front; the sides are unadorned. The single door is divided into two main panels. The top panel is larger and rectangular in shape. While its central ogee arch attracts the eye, it is unusual that the background is made up of four lancet arches that start and stop in their journey from bottom to top. Within the ogee arch, which is subdivided into two rounded arches made up of two lancet arches each, the ornamentation is simple and the beauty of the wood is in full display. The ogee arch has two crockets on each side, small and intricately carved representations of vegetation.
The square design comprising the bottom of the door is more evocative of a cathedral's rose window in its circular design but is restrained in detail, letting the beauty of the oak shine through. The drawer at the base is decorated with triangular shapes mimicking the X-shaped patterns of the frieze above the door. Uniting the design from top to bottom are elongated lancet arches on either side of the door and of the frieze at the top.
The most representative color, given the challenges of photographing dark furniture, is in the image at the top of this page.
Ader-Tajan, Collection Bruno Perrier Haute Epoque (Catalog for Sale at Auction on April 6, 1992 at the Hôtel Drouot, Paris); Boccador, Jacqueline, Le Mobilier Français du Moyen Age à la Renaissance, Editions d'Art Monelle Hayot (Saint-Just-en-Chaussée, 1988); Thirion, Jacques, Le Mobilier du Moyen Age et de la Renaissance en France (Editions Faton, Dijon, 1998); Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène, Le Mobilier Médiéval (Georges Bernage, editor) (Editions Heimdal, 2003).
Inside are three shelves, making it unlikely that any roving bands of Chouans have been concealed in this homme-debout but making it a practical storage space for a modern home or office.