This antique chest dates from the period when chests or coffres were often the main items of furniture in French households. A true "multi-tasker,” a chest functioned as bed, table, and seat while holding all manner of worldly goods. This versatility as well as a chest’s portability have ensured popularity to this day while giving birth to other forms of furniture such as the armoire (a chest turned on its end so that the lid swings outward as a door) the cathedra chair (a low, narrow chest with a tall, carved back added), and the two-piece cabinet or bahut deux corps (two chests laying on their sides and stacked on top of one another).
This particular chest has its origins in northern France and dates from the 17th century. Originally, it had an iron lock that was likely melted down for armaments during wartime but replaced with a handsome, and perhaps patriotically motivated, fleur-de-lys cartouche. Miraculously, the other hand-forged iron elements, such as the side handles and the hinges for the top, remain in place.
It is likely that the acanthus leaf frieze around the base was added later, and the top appears to be a replacement, albeit from old wood. Inside, the bottom panel has been completely replaced to give the chest’s structure greater stability and load-bearing capabilities.
The two front panels of bas relief carving display traditional design elements from the time of Louis XIII such as the cornucopia, sheaves of wheat and flowering plants. These agricultural motifs had gradually replaced the gothic arches, rosettes and fenestrage characteristic of chests of earlier periods. The plis de serviette panels on the sides, however, are typical of the Gothic style. For other pieces where the fleur-de-lys is prominent, see armchair 1023 and the two-piece cabinet 1035.
Because this chest is so very old, it shows its age in numerous dents, splits, and other imperfections accumulating over the three-plus centuries of its existence. More of a museum piece than most of what we offer, its resilience and survival speak volumes about the creativity and durability of works of art doubling as furniture down through the ages.
The most representative color, given the challenges of photographing dark furniture, is in the image at the top of this page.
Rousseau, Francis, Le Grand Livre des Meubles (Copyright Studio, Paris, 1999); Un Temps d’Exubérance, Les Arts Décoratifs sous Louis XIII et Anne d’Autriche, Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais (Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2002)
The chest can perform traditional functions such as storing bed linens, but can also be used as a coffee table or behind a sofa.