Originally commissioned as a set of four, the present chairs were at some point split into two pairs and later reunited by the present collector in 2000. See Rose Kerr, 'Four High Yoke-back Armchairs Reunited as a Set', Orientations, December 2000, p. 81. In the article, Kerr suggests that the extraordinary height of the present chairs and their elegant form suggest a formal use and a display function, and that they would have only been offered to guests of honor. The chairs would have conveyed a sense of dignity and power on any sitter.
The present set of four chairs displays an unparalleled grace and finesse seen only in the finest furniture dated to the Ming dynasty. Several features distinguish this magnificent set: the grand proportions, the graceful curve of the crest rail, the exceptionally well-carved sweeping hook handles, and the beautifully figured S-form backsplat. The curved, matched backsplats have the same beautifully figured grain and confirm that all four splats were cut from the same section of timber. The large sections of huanghuali required to achieve the dramatic curves of the arms and crest rails would have resulted in a significant amount of wastage, and suggests the enormous financial resources of the gentleman who commissioned the set. The confident carving of the outswept hook handles and the superior quality of the huanghuali suggest that the chairs were constructed by a master craftsman. And the beautifully worked brass metal fittings carefully secured at the joints not only provide structural support but add a touch of flourish to this superb set of chairs.
The most comparable published example is a single chair, illustrated by G.W. Bruce, Living with Ming - the Lu Ming Shi Collection, Hong Kong, 2000, pp. 56-7, no. 4, where it is also dated late 16th-early 17th century. The chair shares the same grand proportions, cusped aprons, and huangtong fittings found on the present examples. Compare, also, two huanghuali ‘Official’s Hat’ armchairs, of similar height and proportions, currently in the Nelson-Atkins Collection and published by R. Ellsworth, Chinese Furniture: Hardwood Examples of the Ming and Early Ch’ing Dynasties, New York, 1979, no. 10 (fig. 1).
Sets of four chairs are rare and unusual, and, only a few prominent sets have appeared, most notably the exquisite set of four horseshoe-back armchairs from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection, sold at Christie’s New York, 17 March 2015, lot 41 (fig. 2).