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by Wendell Garrett
|Perhaps more than any other American antique, the kast -- a large free-standing wooden cupboard, usually with two doors -- is a symbol of Dutch cultural heritage in the New World. Made in America exclusively in the Dutch areas of New York and New Jersey from the mid-17th century to the early 19th century, kasten are very functional, impressive storage spaces and signify the material success of the Dutch and the well-ordered households they kept.
Inside the kast are two or three widely spaced shelves. The more elaborate pieces have a drawer in the base section for additional storage. In the Netherlands the kast was often part of the traditional dowry, and was used to store the voluminous stacks of cleaned and pressed linen required by Dutch households. Colonial wills and probate inventories show that kasten served the same function in colonial America.
As in the mother country, Americans placed ceramic vessels on the tops of the kasten for decoration as well as storage. Yorkers were as concerned as Netherlanders with the cleanliness and order in the home. In 1800, Albany was described as "antique, clean and quiet." The doorknockers were scrubbed so thoroughly that they shone "like diamonds."
The original Dutch kast is but one variant emerging from the large body of cupboard furniture made throughout western Europe. Early kasten were built of oak and joined by mortise and tenon, similar to the framed paneling found in the houses of the period. Furniture, however, was more likely than paneling to be embellished with extensive carving and a rich combination of ornaments, such as pilasters, cornices, bosses, panels and caryatids.
Kasten have become quite popular among collectors of American antiques; one made in New York around 1750 recently sold at Sotheby's for $42,500. A look at a kast from the northern Netherlands at the Cleveland Museum of Art demonstrates the European-made kasten were much more ornate than the American kasten. Made of oak with ebony and rosewood veneers, the Cleveland's kast dates from the second quarter of the 17th century. A period room installed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has some paneling from 1626 that is stylistically related to it.
During the famed Golden Age of the Netherlands during the 17th century, when wealth was flooding into the port cities, the Baroque style developed as a dignified expression of the stature and material success of the prosperous bourgeoisie. Around 1650 the kast form became grander and more opulent, incorporating veneers of exotic woods like rosewood with contrasts of ebony, applied to oak carcasses.
The Baroque Kasten were also characterized by monumental proportions and dramatic extensions and indentations that created a play of movement over the entire façade. Especially prominent were the massive door panels, which projected forcefully from the front of the case. The overscale cornice, half-round columns and moldings on these kasten further intensify their dramatic effect.
In America, kasten in the Baroque style were made of hardwood. Their facades are similar to their European counterparts, though the methods of construction by local joiners vary -- some are made in one piece as a single unit; others in two pieces with the upper part resting on the base; and still others in three pieces with a detachable cornice.
The most blatant difference between the American and Dutch kasten is in the level of craftsmanship. The Amerian kasten were provincial interpretations of the grandiose veneered and carved urban Dutch kasten. The skills and tools of the Americans were simply less sophisticated than those of craftsmen working in the cities of the Netherlands. Kasten were, however, very important household items, and production flourished.
But as industrialization gathered speed in America, the Hudson River Valley became increasingly less isolated, and the cultural and practical functions of kasten waned. Gradually kasten ceased to be made. Carefully preserving textiles in cupboards became less important to the 19th-century household when factories began producing inexpensive machine-made yardage of linen and cotton. Changes in architecture lead to built-in cupboards and closets. And as Victorian social mores took hold, it was no longer proper to have a bed in the parlor, so the kast, which was largely used to store bedding, became unnecessary.
No longer the vital symbol of a well-ordered household, the kast had come instead to stand for old-fashioned values and Dutch heritage, whose worth was seen as irrelevant in the forward-looking, dynamic young nation. Only a few old Dutch families sought to preserve the vestiges of their early colonial patrimony. It was only when Dutch culture had been totally absorbed into American life in the late 19th century that a new antiquarian interest directed attention to the kast again.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American Decorative Arts at Sotheby's.
In the bookstore:
Holland Mania by Annette Stott
Identifying American Furniture: A Pictorial Guide to Styles and Terms: Colonial to Contemporary