Red Lacquer Cabinet with Gilded Medallion Decorations

17th/ 18th Century
Northern Elm (Yumu)
Shanxi
70” h. 47” w. 22½” d.

This cabinet is designed in the “four-sides-square” style, a common form of construction from the Shanxi province, an area known to source fine furniture in China. The flush panel doors are fitted with pivot hinges and there is no central removable stile. The lock-plate and pulls are original.

The lacquering of this cabinet is done in the typical layering technique employed in Shanxi. Thin application of black lacquer formed a rich coating on the entire outer surface, which was then accented with red lacquer and then highlighted with gilt decorations. This decorating method makes the piece more valuable because of the labor involved. The cabinet is lacquered black on the sides. On the red-lacquered front, the gilt decoration is finely done so it gives the finished piece a very refined profile. The door panels and the panel below are covered with a diaper of the T-fret design, which is a very revered old Buddhist symbol known in ancient China as the footprint of Buddha, and has the same meaning as “wan” (ten thousand, in the sense of unlimited, eternal). Here, it infers unlimited richness.

Floating on this diaper are numerous gilt medallions adorned with traditional auspicious motifs. Represented are the flowers of the four seasons: the peony (spring), the lotus (summer), the chrysanthemum (autumn), and the pine (winter). These floral motifs sometimes combined to form in China what are known as The Three Friends: Pine (strength), Bamboo (uprightness, integrity, and faithfulness), and Plum Blossom (strength in adversity because it comes into blossom while snow is still on the ground); The Four Nobles: bamboo for faithfulness, plum blossom for strength, chrysanthemum for generosity, and orchid for modesty and hidden beauty. Also represented in the medallions are the crane (longevity), the butterfly (longevity and happiness), a few of the Attributes of a Scholar (scrolls, vases, and incense burners), as well as some landscape scenes. Together, these motifs and symbols proclaim “riches and honor till eternity” to the recipients.

This cabinet not only looks magnificent in a room, it provides ample space for storage. Its interior is fitted with two deep shelves, two compact gilded drawers, and a hidden storage space below the bottom shelf. The piece survived in excellent condition, with some inevitable cracks which tend to occur on furniture with wide panels from China due to extreme climate fluctuation. It is best not to attempt to fix the cracks, especially on red-lacquered wood as it is very difficult, if not impossible, to recreate the red color, which is from a natural pigment of cinnabar or vermilion. If the restorer is not familiar with Chinese lacquer and the new application is not right, resulting in a “finish” look, the integrity of the antique would be jeopardized and the piece devalued. The patina it shows can be achieved only through years of use and natural aging. The richness this cabinet exudes proclaims it a piece made for a family of status.