High Chest (Primary Title)
The surface of this beautiful and extremely rare high chest was “japanned”—a process first popularized in 17th-century Europe in an attempt to imitate the decorative ornament of Asian lacquers. Elements such as stylized pavilions, willow trees, robed figures, and birds were built up with gesso (calcium or chalk mixed with glue). The entire chest was then coated with gesso, followed by black paint. Finally, details were brushed in with gold leaf.
One of the scenes on the chest illustrates “Washing the Elephant,” an ancient Buddhist theme representing disengagement (cleansing) from the material world. Paradoxically, in 18th-century colonial America, few furnishings communicated an owner’s affluence better. The opulent high chest (a form frequently described today as a “high boy”) would have been proudly displayed in the bedchamber, the primary sitting room in colonial American households.
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