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Arts of North America

Art created in North America includes objects made by native cultures of the present-day United States and Canada; paintings and decorative arts produced during colonial times; 18th- and 19th-century masterpieces; and the work of contemporary artists and photographers.

Attributed to the shop of John Townsend
American, 1732/33 - 1809
Bureau Table
c. 1770, Newport, Newport County, Rhode Island
Mahogany, brass, chestnut, yellow poplar

34 1/2 x 39 1/4 x 22 inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Bayou Bend Collection
Gift of Miss Ima Hogg

Arts of North America

From the time Europeans began exploring the Americas, they recognized the beauty and value of the giant mahogany trees that dotted the Caribbean and Central America. Mahogany became a luxury material in high demand during the 1700s for both Europeans and Americans. As with many other New World resources, slave labor was used to satisfy the demand for mahogany.

This mahogany table was directly connected to the Atlantic slave trade. The owner of this table, Samuel Vernon, was a wealthy slave trader and merchant in late-1700s Newport, Rhode Island. Eager to display his elite status, Vernon ordered a stylish bureau table (a form of dressing table) made from mahogany, the finest wood sold at the time. Customers like Vernon could buy mahogany because of the slave labor that harvested it—labor supplied by men like Vernon who transported enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean. This object reminds us of the many ways that slavery shaped the lives of both enslaved and free Americans.