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A PENNSYLVANIA-GERMAN POPLAR AND PINE PAINT-DECORATED “BLACK-UNICORN” CHEST OVER DRAWERS
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A PENNSYLVANIA-GERMAN POPLAR AND PINE PAINT-DECORATED “BLACK-UNICORN” CHEST OVER DRAWERS

BERN TOWNSHIP, BERKS COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA, 1790-1805

Details
A PENNSYLVANIA-GERMAN POPLAR AND PINE PAINT-DECORATED “BLACK-UNICORN” CHEST OVER DRAWERS
BERN TOWNSHIP, BERKS COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA, 1790-1805
appears to retain its original pierced brasses; repairs to feet
29 in. high, 52 3/8 in. wide, 23 in. deep
Provenance
Mrs. Miles White, Jr., née Virginia Purviance Bonsal (1870-1955), Baltimore
Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1933
Acquired from above in March 1947
Literature
D. Fennimore et al., The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection: Decorative Arts, New York, 1992, vol. IV, p. 354-355, no. 398 (illustrated in color, p. 358).
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Lot Essay

A magnificent display of Pennsylvania-German artistry, this chest over drawers is a particularly outstanding example of the renowned “black unicorn” chests of Berks County, Pennsylvania. Vibrantly colored and rich in detail, this group of chests has long captured the attention of collectors and museum curators. Esther Stevens Fraser first identified these forms as a distinct group in 1925 and since that time, scholars have explored their European antecedents, iconography and use within the household. While the rampant unicorn is seen on both American and English coats of arms, the design also appears on furniture made in Switzerland and its use on these chests may reflect the Swiss ancestry of some of the group’s makers (Esther Stevens Fraser, “Pennsylvania Bride Boxes and Dower Chests, II: County Types of Chests,” The Magazine Antiques (August 1925), pp. 79-84; Monroe H. Fabian, The Pennsylvania-German Paint Decorated Chest (1978); Beatrice B. Garvan and Charles F. Hummel, The Pennsylvania Germans: A Celebration of Their Arts (Philadelphia, 1982), p. 33; Benno M. Forman, “German Influences in Pennsylvania Furniture,” in Arts of the Pennsylvania Germans (Winterthur, 1983), p. 142; Wendy A. Cooper and Lisa Minardi, Paint, Pattern & People: Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725-1850 (Winterthur, 2011), pp. 144-149; for a chest dated 1753 made in Switzerland with rampant unicorns and other related motifs, see the Swiss National Museum, Zurich, accession no. LM-17665).

Through a rigorous analysis of the chests’ construction and paintwork, Patricia J. Keller determined that at least eight different cabinet shops and four different decorators were responsible for the approximately forty known forms comprising the “black unicorn” group. The chest offered here features construction details consistent with the practices assigned to cabinet shop “D” by Keller; these details comprise three through-tenons joining the lids to the side lid moldings, a distinctive lid molding profile, side lid moldings enclosing the front lid molding with butted joints, a front skirt lacking a central drop and drawers with bottoms that slide into grooves in the fronts and sides. As indicated by inscribed dates and names of first owners, cabinet shop “D” was active in Bern Township from at least 1794 to 1803, the earliest and latest dates on other chests from this group, which comprise those at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (fig. 1), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 2) and a private collection. Displaying only slightly differing practices, such as the addition of a central drop on the skirt and variant drawer construction, a chest at Winterthur Museum and another in a private collection represent the work of maker “E,” who appears to have been closely allied through training to maker “D” (Patricia J. Keller, “Workmanship, Form and Cultural Identity: The Black-Unicorn Paint-Decorated Chests of Berks County, Pennsylvania” (M.A. Thesis, Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, The University of Delaware, 1984), pp. 28-30; an adaption of her thesis appears in the article, “Black-Unicorn Chests of Berks County, Pennsylvania,” The Magazine Antiques (October 1991), pp. 592-605; for the “D” shop chest in a private collection, see Fabian, figs. 89, 259, 260; for the “E” shop chests, see Keller 1991, pls. VI, VIII. Based on photographs, Keller identifies three additional chests that may have been made in either the “D” or “E” shops, see Keller 1984, p. 41, fn. 15).

His work described by Keller as “distinguishable by virtue of his crisply articulated forms carefully and sparingly spaced on the ground color, and by the enamel-like quality of his paint,” a single painter identified as decorator “3” was responsible for the decoration of the chests from both the “D” and “E” cabinet shops described above. The high level of consistency in the motifs indicates that the decorator used templates and possibly transferred the designs by pin-pricking the outline on a sheet and then pouncing powder through these holes on to the new surface. Keller speculates that the dotted surrounds, such as those seen on the floral stems on the chest offered here, were inspired by the marks left by the transfer process. With access to the same templates, decorator “3” appears to have been the third in a succession of craftsmen practicing this trade and may have trained under those who decorated chests made by Keller’s “A”, “B”, “C” and “F” cabinet shops, which range in date from 1776 to 1787 (Keller 1984, pp. 50-57; Keller 1991, p. 601).

The chest was previously owned by Mrs. Miles White, Jr., née Virginia Purviance Bonsal (1870-1955), a pioneering collector, historic preservationist and philanthropist in early twentieth-century Baltimore. A niece of John Hopkins, Mrs. White was instrumental in the foundation of the Hammond-Harwood House and gave much of her silver collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art. She sold the chest to Colonial Williamsburg in 1933 and according to the recollections of David Rockefeller, the chest was among items deaccessioned soon after World War II (D. Fennimore et al., The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection: Decorative Arts, New York, 1992, vol. IV, p. 355).

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