Liveliness, Mythology, and Whimsy

Dower Chest. ca.1780 Berks County, Pennsylvania. 23.16. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Painted furniture in the German-American tradition bears evidence of a deep craving for liveliness, mythology, and whimsy. As Fabian suggests, these chests “exhibit a full range of celestial and earthly subjects” with stars, flowers, hearts, horses, and peacocks right beside more fanciful creatures like unicorns, angels, and the elusive mermaid. Even the common house cat makes an occasional appearance.

The decorators of these chests clearly wanted to incorporate the fullness of life in their work, though the intent of individual decorators in applying particular motifs is sometimes unclear. Fabian suggests that while there is much conjecture about these themes, “almost never are we given any clue by the painter himself.” There are clues within the verbal tradition and culture that helps make sense of some of the motifs: In Germanic volkskunde (folklore), for instance, mermaids are associated with birth (because that’s where babies come from), and while modern science has yet to discover a proper species of unicorn, to the 16th-century German mind they were still a distinct possibility.

Dower Chest. ca.1780 Berks County, Pennsylvania. 23.16 Detail. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

– Jim McConnell, excerpt from “A Painted Chest in the Pennsylvania-German Tradition” in Issue Six, available here.


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