One of the supreme examples of American furniture in the Chippendale style is the famous Philadelphia high chest of drawers, popularly called the "Pompadour highboy" because of the supposed French character of the portrait bust in its pediment. This prized icon of early Philadelphia cabinetmaking is on permanent exhibition in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
For all its importance, nothing is known about the Pompadour's early history. The high chest appears to have entered the antique furniture market about the time of the nation's Centennial in 1876. The New London collector George S. Palmer acquired the piece between 1909 and 1913, from whom the museum purchased it in 1918.
The Pompadour highboy includes more motifs, borrowed from more different engravings, than any other American piece. The pictorial tableau on the large bottom drawer is a rendition of a chimney tablet design from Thomas Johnson's New Book of Ornaments (1762). The configuration of cornice moldings and dentils comes from a desk and bookcase in Thomas Chippendale's Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director (1754), Plate 107, and the draped urns are from the central finial of that piece. The general arrangement -- a continuous horizontal cornice surmounted by a finial portrait bust within a pediment from which tympanum leafage springs -- copies another of Chippendale's designs for a desk and bookcase (Plate 78). The elegant proportions, the carefully chosen figured wood of the drawer fronts, and the delicate, discreetly placed and highly naturalistic carving -- in the pediment scrolls the asymmetrical leafage seems to grow out of the architectural elements -- merit encomiums.
The scroll or pitch pediment that capped most tall Philadelphia case furniture offered expansive opportunities for the wood carver. The tympanum board was often enriched with carving, or piercing as seen here. Rising out of it, through the center of the pediment, was a carved finial. A number of designs were used for the finials: shield-shaped or rococo-scrolled cartouches, baskets or vases of flowers, or birds (usually a phoenix).
An altogether different form of ornamental finial was the carved portrait bust. The Pompadour high chest belongs to a group of about a dozen known case pieces of Philadelphia furniture that are ornamented with figural sculpture made in the last third of the 18th century. The most frequently used subject was John Locke, followed by John Milton.
Finial busts of renowned literary figures of this sort can be traced back, like so many other details of interior decoration, to Renaissance Florence, where small metal or marble busts of famous men were used to decorate Italian luxury cabinets. Later, from illustrations of the great Huguenot designer Daniel Marot, the English pattern books of James Gibbs and Batty Langley as well as other sources from the 1720-1750 period were especially fond of groupings of busts on a mantel. While some comparable busts on Massachusetts furniture of the late 18th century are known, Philadelphia was unquestionably the center for this type of ornament in British North America. With the exception of the female portrait on the Pompadour highboy, all of the other American finial busts known are male and are found only on desks-and-bookcases having continuous cornices beneath their pediments.
Portrait busts were readily available in Philadelphia by 1765, when the wood-carvers Bernard and Jugiez advertised "a great variety of figures, large and small busts in plaster of Paris, and brackets for ditto" in the Pennsylvania Gazette. The carving on the case of Pompadour, of an exceptional realism and immediacy, must be the work of a London-trained master. There is informed speculation that Hercules Courtnay, who arrived in Philadelphia by 1765, was the craftsman. Even independent of the magnificent structures they were intended to grace, these finial portrait busts are among the most engaging manifestations of the American rococo.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American decorative arts at Sotheby's.