This chest is remarkable for its pristine condition, and with much of its old surface and original paintwork intact, stands as one of the most impressive and important survivals of the "Sunflower" tradition. This school of case furniture flourished in central Connecticut during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. While over eighty five chests, chests with one drawer, chests with two drawers, boxes and cupboards bearing the signature floral carved panels (once thought to be sunflowers, but now described as marigolds or stylized rosettes) are known today, the vast majority have lost the red and black paintwork, which was essential for conveying the Mannerist aesthetic of compartmentalized design. With the applied ornament and moldings painted black and the stiles, rails, panels and drawer fronts painted a reddish brown, the paint was critical in delineating the geometric divisions of the highly ordered facade. Furthermore, the chest's panel moldings retain their reddish-orange painted ground highlighted by black squiggly lines in imitation of snakewood or rosewood. As noted by Robert Trent, only five other "Sunflower" pieces bear this original paintwork: a one-drawer chest at the Milwaukee Art Museum, a cupboard at Yale University Art Gallery, a two-drawer chest at Historic Deerfield, a one-drawer chest in the Kaufman Collection and another one-drawer chest in a private collection (Robert F. Trent, catalogue entry, in Gerald W. R. Ward, ed., American Furniture with Related Decorative Arts, 1660-1830: The Milwaukee Art Museum and the Layton Art Collection (New York, 1991), pp. 37, 39, fn. 7; see also 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).
The chest's form, with one drawer instead of two, heightens its rarity and makes it especially desirable in today's market. "Sunflower" chests with two drawers are far more plentiful than one-drawer examples. Interestingly, this pattern contrasts with the Hadley chest tradition, which flourished slightly later further up the Connecticut River; its one-drawer chests are much more common than its chests with two or more drawers. At the time they were made, the two-drawer chests from both traditions were undoubtedly a more expensive option to the one-drawer model.
With its large number of surviving examples, innovative design and construction and widespread influence, the "Sunflower" tradition 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 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, 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 Trent and Safford, cited above; Philip Zea, catalogue entries, in 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; 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.
Christie's gratefully acknowledges the scholarship of Martha H. Willoughby.