Tibetan Cabinet with Seven Floral Painted Panels

19th Century
Pine, mineral color pigments

Tibet is not known to have fine furniture like there is in China. Carpentry and type of wood as building material has never been noteworthy to Tibetans because of the country’s remote location and their high plateaus could only produce pine and other conifer trees. The Tibetans love nature and colors. To them the main value lies in the aesthetic value of painted decorations.

This cabinet shows traditional method of construction on the top and side panels where colorful decorations have not obscure the method of carpentry. These panels reveal exposed tenons and wooden nail-heads. The seven painted panels in front are set recessed within beaded frame members painted with gold scrolling vines. The two middle panels at the top serve as doors that can slide out at right angle on hidden swivel hinges. One door panel is fitted with a metal hasp that can lock to a stud on the opposite door.

The seven front panels are painted with peony flowers in vibrant colors of red, blue, and orange, with the petals edged in white. The paintings are inside a black-lined cartouche oval with a mustard yellow background, which in turn is set against an orange-red ground within the frame of each wood panel. Since the 19th century, due to trade and influence from China, many Tibetans prefer to have painted decorations of auspicious symbols in the hope that their particular deity might grant their personal wishes, rather than religious symbols and figures painted as offerings to gain merits to attain enlightenment for favorable rebirth. Peony is an auspicious symbol of wealth. The cabinet may have been made for an affluent merchant to store his personal belongings rather than religious items.

During the Cultural Revolution, “class struggle” to do away the “old society” has caused many painted furniture in Tibet to be vandalized or destroyed. As a result, original antique furniture with good paintings is hard to find and often quite expensive. Colorful exotic-looking furniture looks well in a contemporary room in the West, so, many Tibetan and Nepalese wood-workers eke out a living by making painted furniture to sell to tourists. It is hard to tell the new from the old but a patina showing a fine film of yak butter grease would be a good start in recognizing an authentic antique piece as yak butter has been used in Tibet as cooking oil and butter lamp fuel for centuries. This cabinet has that patina to show its antiquity. There is a big difference in value between the old and the new.