Whenever we find a piece of Gothic furniture made from solid chestnut, we rejoice! Chestnut is a wood with a rich grain, like its distant relative oak, but the pattern is even bolder and more colorful, indeed unmistakable. But there were not a lot of Gothic style pieces of furniture made from chestnut in France during the 19th century, as we've learned over the course of our antiques business. Often mislabeled as oak, they are not darkly stained and so the beauty of the wood invariably shines through.
Chestnut trees are found mainly in central and southern France, especially in the Ardèche region. The French have long treasured foods made from chestnuts harvested there, whether stuffing for a goose, flavoring for yogurt, marrons glacés candies, topping for toast, an ingredient in a luscious chocolate cake, or simply roasted over a fire in an antique fireplace.
Prior to the introduction of potatoes from South America (and their championing by, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier in the 18th century), chestnuts were a main source of carbohydrates for French communities located in forested areas of central and southern France and away from the broad plains where wheat was grown and converted to flour. There is more about this at the Musée de la Chataigneraie (Chestnut Grove Museum) in Beaumedrobie in the Cevennes area of south central France (overlapping with the Ardèche). For more about chestnut-oriented travel and the Cevennes National Park, see a recent article in English in France Today.
While we can’t say that the trees from which our cabinet was made came from the Ardèche, we can imagine that this cabinet had pride of place for generations in a traditional dining room featuring a large table, chairs, and at least one smaller cabinet in addition to this classic design of bahut-deux-corps or two-piece cabinet.
Whoever commissioned the piece had a love for Gothic fenestrage or tracery, evident from the fact that of the 8 rectangular panels on the doors of the cabinet (4 panels on the top and 4 on the bottom) and the two at the back of the middle section, each is a different design. They display the originality and complex vocabulary of tracery including rosettes, mouchettes (curved eliptical shapes), quatrefoils, soufflets (eliptical shapes), as well as lancet and ogive arches. Intertwined and set within one another, elements combine to dish up a feast for the eyes to accompany whatever chestnut delicacies may be served up on the cabinet’s buffet surface. They also serve to remind the admirer of the elements used in Gothic architecture, especially the cathedrals and other buildings found across northern France in the flamboyant Gothic style of the late middle ages. Re-popularized in the middle and late 19th century, this style can be traced to the public’s embrace of anything related to the restoration of Notre Dame de Paris and other buildings undertaken by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.
A typical bahut-deux-corps, the top and bottom cases can be separated for moving. When assembled, they are joined by an open middle section with columns in a spiral design inspired by the pillars in Gothic churches. At the back of the open section are two panels of tracery in repeating patterns featuring rosettes. One is surrounded by mouchettes while the other is encased in circles. Below the open space are two drawers whose front panels are based on mouchettes radiating out in the manner of gadrooning from a central escutcheon on which the brass drawer-pull is mounted.
Flowing upward on each front corner of the cabinet are two interlocking chains of intricately carved serrated leaves, a variation of the design seen on armoire 5205. The leaves match the design of chestnut leaves, a fitting validation of the species from which the cabinet has been hewn.
The cabinet is crowned by a railing of open tracery with crocketing in a stylized acanthus leaf design. Tracery in a trefoil design is carved into the base of each section of the railing. At the front of the top are corner blocks with carved lancet arches topped by a toupie or finial.
Inside the cabinet there are two shelves in the top case and one in the bottom. Both doors lock with the same key, which is included.
Boccador, Jacqueline, Le Mobilier Français du Moyen Age à la Renaissance (Editions d'Art Monelle Hayot, Saint-Just-en-Chaussée, 1988); Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène, Le Mobilier Médiéval (Georges Bernage, editor) (Editions Heimdal, 2003)
This cabinet would work well in a traditional dining room or in a kitchen.