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"The Fox and the Grapes" High Chest of Drawers

Artist/maker unknown, American

Made in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States, North and Central America



Mahogany, tulip poplar, white cedar, yellow pine; brass

8 feet 3/4 inches × 46 1/2 inches × 25 3/4 inches (245.7 × 118.1 × 65.4 cm)

Curatorial Department:
American Art

* Gallery 202, American Art, second floor (Flammer Gallery)

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Gift of Mrs. Henry V. Greenough, 1957

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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.

Additional information:
  • PublicationPhiladelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections

    The impressive scale and bold ornament of this Philadelphia high chest, produced during the height of the taste for the Rococo, demonstrates the sophistication and talent of American cabinetmakers working in this style during the last half of the eighteenth century. Its ornately carved pediment is balanced by the light rocaille trails of flowers and vines along the sides, the relief-carved vignette at the bottom, and the boldly scrolled decorations along the undulating skirt and the S-curved cabriolle legs. The production of such an elaborate piece of furniture was a collaborative process, with joiners constructing the case that carvers Bernard and Jugiez then ornamented. Here the strong architectonic proportions of the case have determined the placement of its decorative carving. The scene of the fox and grapes depicted on both the bottom drawer of this chest and its matching dressing table was probably based on motifs derived from folk tales published in the eighteenth century. Jack L. Lindsey, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 263.

* Works in the collection are moved off view for many different reasons. Although gallery locations on the website are updated regularly, there is no guarantee that this object will be on display on the day of your visit.