Beginning in the fifteenth century, the intense longing for traded goods from faraway lands led to an equally profound fascination with materials from all over the world. The cabinets in this exhibition invite the viewer to look closely at their materials and construction, as well as the details of their craftsmanship. Etched bone, veneered tortoiseshell, and stained walnut burl highlight the hand of the artisans at work, while the cost of their materials places them in the realm of luxury goods and speaks to the tastes of the consumer.
The construction of the cabinets is as important as their actual use. Although they may at first seem different in style and function, all three cabinets share a common ancestor in the chest—a low-rising piece of furniture, typically made of wood, with handles attached to the sides and a locking lid on top. Although the safe storage of possessions is their shared purpose, these three pieces evolved to fit changing tastes and new homes over nearly three hundred years. By examining the history of raw materials and ownership we can draw parallels between these cabinets and everyday objects in our current lives. What kinds of objects would have been kept in the drawers and locked compartments? When did owners choose to unlock their precious collections? How did these cabinets pass from generation to generation and finally reach their current location and condition?
The setting we’ve selected for the display of the cabinets is loosely modeled on the Kunst- und Wunderkammer—“cabinets of art and wonders.” The early predecessor to the modern museum, such curiosity cabinets came to prominence in the sixteenth-century courts of Europe. By the seventeenth century they were being widely imitated by educated members of the upper middle class. Within these collections objects from the many known and newly discovered realms were arranged in a way to make viewers admire and wonder, pondering at their provenance and creation. An intricate Nautilus shell displays its perfectly scaled symmetry, and below it, the same shell is fashioned into a goblet decked out in gold, silver, and precious gems. Objects of the natural world were twisted into manufactured objects of curiosity by artists, and these human-made objects were in turn brought together by the hands of the collector.
Surrounding the cabinets in this setting are paintings by European artists, representing various styles from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. The still lifes are meant to evoke the relationship between man and the natural world, while the portraits evoke the spirits of the people who may once have owned the cabinets in front of them.
The two European cabinets are reminders of the spread of Western colonialism, while the Rhode Island cabinet represents the start of a new era. Above all, these cabinets tell the tale of success and achievement in times of economic prosperity.