With an old surface and much of its applied ornament intact, this chest is an exceptional example of the most popular form of "Sunflower" furniture. The "Sunflower" school of joinery flourished in central Connecticut during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and over eighty five examples are known today bearing the signature floral carving (once thought to be sunflowers, but now described as marigolds or stylized rosettes) as seen on this chest's central panel. Chests without drawers and with one drawer, cupboards and boxes were all made by this school, but accounting for the vast majority of surviving forms is the two-drawer chest (for a one-drawer example from the same collection, see fig. 1). Unlike most other survivals, however, the chest offered here is in excellent condition and has escaped the aggressive restoration seen on most other surviving forms today. With lids, feet and applied ornament all vulnerable to loss and damage, these parts are often restored or replaced and the original paintwork of red and black enhancing the geometric divisions has often been completely erased in an effort to reveal the oak graining or simply clean the exterior. The chest offered here is notable for the originality of its parts, especially the fragile applied turnings, and a surface that reflects the passage of time and benign neglect.
With its large number of surviving examples, innovative design and construction and widespread influence, the "Sunflower" school is one of the most significant groups of early American furniture. The earliest known example is a cupboard made for Rev. Joseph Rowlandson (1631-1678), who lost all his possessions in a Native American attack in Lancaster, Massachusetts in 1676 and moved to Wethersfield in 1677. He died there the following year, thus providing a 1677 or 1678 date for his "Sunflower" cupboard now at the Lancaster Public Library. Peter Blin (c.1640-1725), a French-speaking emigre, has long been associated with the production of "Sunflower" furniture as he arrived in Wethersfield in 1675, just prior to the production of the Rowlandson cupboard and his inventory included both joiner's and turner's tools, indicating he was able to make both the chests and their applied turned ornaments. Furthermore, Robert F. Trent argues that the flowers are marigolds, which had symbolic references in seventeenth-century France, and thus likely part of the decorative vocabulary of a craftsman of French heritage. The Blin attribution remains conjectural as the large number of surviving chests, though remarkably consistent in ornament and construction, were undoubtedly made in several shops-perhaps concurrently or by apprentices emulating the practices of a master. In addition, two closely related but stylistically earlier chests with all-over carving and lacking applied ornament were made in Windsor, Connecticut. These chests are possible antecedents, which would indicate that the "Sunflower" tradition was locally born, rather than introduced by an immigrant such as Blin. Illustrating the breadth and depth of the influence of the "Sunflower" tradition, related designs and construction techniques appear on a number of Hartford County forms as well as a group of painted chests from the Connecticut coast.
For more on "Sunflower" furniture, see Philip Zea, catalogue entries, The Great River: Art and Society of the Connecticut Valley, 1635-1820 (Hartford, CT, 1985), cats. 78, 79, pp. 198-201; Susan Prendergast Schoelwer, "Connecticut Sunflower Furniture: A Familiar Form Reconsidered," Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (Spring 1989), pp. 26-29; Robert F. Trent, catalogue entry, American Furniture with Related Decorative Arts, 1660-1830: The Milwaukee Art Museum and the Layton Art Collection, Gerald W.R. Ward, ed. (New York, 1991), pp. 37, 39; Martha H. Willoughby, "From Carved to Painted: Chests of Central and Coastal Connecticut, c. 1675-1725" (M.A. thesis, University of Delaware, Delaware, 1994), pp. 14-76; Joshua W. Lane and Donald P. White III, Woodworkers of Windsor: A Connecticut Community of Craftsmen and Their World, 1635-1715 (Windsor, CT, 2003), pp. 60-61, 63, cats. 23, 25; Frances Gruber Safford, American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: I. Early Colonial Period: The Seventeenth-Century and William and Mary Styles (New York, 2007), pp. 219-224.