These extraordinary, heavily carved chairs represent the seasons of spring and summer while paying tribute to the Roman goddess Ceres (also known to the ancient Greeks as Demeter), who was considered responsible for bountiful harvests as a reward to farmers for wise and careful cultivation of the soil. They evoke the Renaissance tradition of harking back to the pagan rituals and deities of ancient Greece and Rome for subject matter depicted on furniture and ceramics.
While classical mythology is rich in stories about the ancient gods and goddesses and their all too human predilections, those swirling around Ceres and Demeter emphasize a kind heart and an interest in the well-being of humans underlying her concern for annual, abundant harvests. Indeed, Ceres carries on in our modern world as the origin of the word “cereal” for breakfast foods made from grain.
What attracted us to these chairs was the intricacy and masterful nature of the hand carving of the back panels, coupled with the rich color of the old-growth walnut. While a matching pair in overall structure, the two carved panels are distinct and the scenes they represent can be traced directly back to the school of design named for the Château de Fontainebleau in the period termed the Second Renaissance.
As discussed by Jacques Thirion in his masterwork, Mobilier Moyen Age Renaissance en France, furniture designers of this period adored themes drawn from antiquity (the 4 seasons, the 4 elements, the 5 senses, and oodles of deities representing aspects of the physical world such as Ceres). A masterpiece of the Fontainebleau School portraying the 4 seasons was a cabinet included in the Arconati-Visconti gift to the Louvre in the early 20th century. A similar cabinet was part of the sale at auction in
April of 1992 of Collection of Bruno Perrier. As Thirion posits, the popularity of these designs was ensured by their dissemination throughout Europe in the form of engravings and etchings published in France as well as Holland. It is in these latter sources that the Ceres legend blurs with other themes such as the four seasons, leading designs similar to these chairs as representing spring and summer.
All of these items show a female figure in the contrapposto pose of ancient statuary carrying bouquets of flowers (in the case of “spring”) and sheaves of wheat (in the case of “summer”). In the case of these two chairs, we were captivated by the anachronistic and highly detailed scenes of the medieval walled villages in the background, complete with smoke curling from chimneys, while the female figure, scantily clad in a time of global cooling, transports grain from the harvest or carries a cornucopia
of ripe fruit. In these tasks she is assisted by several charmingly depicted representatives of the animal kingdom. On the chair at the left in the photo, a goose and disproportionately large snail are her companions, while on the chair at the right a dog accompanies her while a disproportionately large squirrel observes from a tree branch. Because these scenes are portrayed within a rectangular space rather than the oval medallion shown in engravings and on the cabinets mentioned above, there
is room for additional detail and the placement of the figures in a location that might have been identifiable to the audience of the time.
The overall structure of these armchairs has its roots in the 16th century in France when the focus shifted from large, high-backed throne-like seating to comfortable occasional chairs that were more portable and decorative. These chairs reflect the standard construction designs of the 16th century, having solid, gracefully shaped turnings used as vertical supports and, instead of a perpendicular stretcher, a foundation in the form of horizontal mouldings connecting the four legs at and forming an outer
perimeter of the base.
In keeping with 19th century and earlier styles where chairs were expected to be backed against walls when not in use, the reverse sides of these chairs are uncarved although the grain of the walnut is exquisite and too lovely to be hidden from view.
There is an old repair to the figure of Ceres on the chair at the right, which we have not tampered with in order to maintain the integrity of the piece as an antique. These chairs are truly works of art in the tradition of the finest French craftsmanship and reverence for the beauty of old-growth walnut. While it is likely that they were originally part of a set of four depicting all the seasons, these two celebrating spring and summer are masterpieces unto themselves.