"The Fox and the Grapes" High Chest of Drawers
Artist/maker unknown, American
For fashionable eighteenth-century Philadelphians, high chests and dressing tables represented the pinnacle of design, cabinetmaking, and carving in bedchamber furniture. This massive high chest was conceived with a smaller dressing table (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2012-59-1). On its central drawer a composition borrowed from a 1761 publication by English carver Thomas Johnson depicts the moment of truth from Aesop’s well-known fable “The Fox and the Grapes”: a proud and skillful fox who cannot reach a bunch of succulent grapes decries them as sour and not desirable after all. The tale warns against the ills of greed and vanity, an ironic scene on this bold emblem of opulence. It is believed that this high chest, made in Philadelphia between 1765 and 1775 went through the process of confiscation and sale that occurred after the British left Philadelphia in May 1778. During this time entire contents of households still refusing to pledge allegiance to the cause for American independence could be confiscated and sold for the benefit of the Continental Army. The name "James Milligan" across the backboards refers to the Philadelphia city official James Milligan, who served in several treasury-related roles in the patriot government during this period and likely had a hand in this process. His name is written first in pen with the date 1783 and then again in chalk with the date 1784.