- United States
Attributed to Gustave Herter and Christian Herter
Height: 85 in. Width: 84.5 in. Depth: 23.5 in.
Funds from Bruce and Nancy Benson, Estelle R. Wolf, DAM Yankees, The Junior League of Denver and funds in memory of Walton W. Wilson, 1989.202
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
Up to 100 craftsmen, each specializing in a single technique, were employed by the Herter Brothers decorating firm to create this cabinet. Herter Brothers, the New York firm of the German-born brothers Gustave and Christian Herter, was one of the leading cabinetmaking firms in the United States during the late 1800s. Furniture made by Herter Brothers is known for its beauty and design, as well as its fine craftsmanship and attention to detail. The number of materials and the various techniques used to produce this cabinet—including carving, incising (cutting into), gilding (applying gold to the surface), and veneering (covering furniture with other materials, like brass or copper)—create a complex and beautiful piece. People who purchased Herter cabinets were typically wealthy investors, industrialists, and institutions. The Herters were even commissioned for thirteen pieces for the Grant Red Room in the White House.
What Inspired It
The Herters created furniture of extraordinary craftsmanship; their design was legendary and extremely ornate. Dozens of different woods from all over the world were combined to create this cabinet. The predominant wood used, however, is rosewood, an exotic material at the time, known for its fragrance, smoothness, and strength. This cabinet is an example of American Victorian design. It features rich materials, multiple techniques, and diverse motifs drawn from a variety of cultures—this eclectic style characterized much of the Victorian era. Different motifs to look for in this cabinet include animals, statues, flowers, geometric patterning, and architectural elements. It is believed that this piece was either placed in a parlor opposite a fireplace or in a bedroom to be used as a storage unit. The cabinet would probably have been adorned with a bust or a vase with peacock feathers.
The most noticeable technique used in this cabinet is marquetry. Marquetry is a process by which small pieces of wood that have been stained or bleached to create different colors are fitted together to form patterns. This process is similar to creating a jigsaw puzzle: each piece has to fit perfectly with the one next to it. Check out the two standing figures on the central doors. The folds in their robes are not painted; they are actually made of many tiny pieces of wood that have been meticulously fitted together.
Gilding is a finishing process that involves applying a thin layer of gold to the surface of an object. Look for examples of gilding at the very top of the cabinet.
Another type of gold finish can be found on the cabinet’s three roundels—the three round circular elements (two on the side edges of the main frame and one at the center of the base). The material used for this type of finish is called ormolu [ORma-loo]: literally, “ground gold.” Ormolu was a common decorative finish during the 1700–1800s, especially in France.
Look for carved details at the cabinet’s triangular top and the series of rectangular boxes that run along the inside border. Notice the architectural elements that have been carefully carved: the fluted (or vertically grooved) columns, the female masks beneath the columns, and the winged sphinxes.
Incising is another technique used by the artist to embellish the surface. It involves carving shallow lines into the surface of the cabinet. These lines are often filled with gilding to make them stand out.
The mythological figures on the two center doors hold staffs and baskets of grain. They represent Demeter, the Greek goddess of fertility. Demeter is known for mourning the abduction of her daughter Persephone by Hades, god of the Underworld.
These are mythological winged creatures that have the body of a lion and the head of a woman. A sphinx is said to have killed anybody who passed by and could not answer her riddle.
On each of the two small side doors is a large amphora (an ancient Greek jar) that is filled with flowers. These classic, two-handled jars have oval bodies and narrow cylindrical necks.
The portrait medallions, located above and below Demeter, most likely portray a Renaissance academic. He wears a traditional academic skullcap.
Note the carved female masks beneath the fluted columns on either side of the two central doors. This element was seen throughout the Herters’ work. The faces have no pupils, an almost continuous brow, a straight nose, and full lips.