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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.

 
 
 
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS
Desk-and-Bookcase
1780–1800
Mahogany; eastern white pine

94 5/8 x 40 x 21 3/8 inches

 
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Bayou Bend Collection
Gift of Miss Ima Hogg

Arts of North America
 
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Few pieces of American furniture possess the sculptural qualities of this rare desk-and-bookcase. Notable for its bombé sides, the case exhibits an even greater complexity and movement with its serpentine contoured front. This sense of motion is further accentuated by the lively scalloped carving which defines the bookcase doors. Although the desk’s diminutive scale and construction suggest it was produced towards the end of the century, as the popularity of the Rococo was beginning to wane, it fully embraces the Late Baroque idiom. 

It is provocative to consider that the desk’s original owner, Thomas Dawes, may have assumed a central role in its design and attentively oversaw its construction. Initially trained as a mason, he eventually became a recognized architect in Boston. Clearly, he was conversant with the bombé form, having installed a pulpit in this contour patterned after plate 112 in Batty Langley’s The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs, for Boston’s Brattle Street Church in 1772. In addition to his copy of Langley, Dawes’s extensive library included other architectural tomes by James Gibbs, William Salmon, William Pain, and Colen Campbell, as well as published furniture designs by Robert Manwaring. Perhaps these were a source of inspiration for this desk, particularly its bombé shape, writing interior, and architectronic bookcase.