Welcome back for the conclusion of our journey into the mystery of the “kidney shape” at the center of the Rococo style cartouche for a Philadelphia Highboy. Let’s explore a few theories
The central, convex surface that is the trademark of a traditional cartouche in architecture, woodworking, painting, etc. would typically display a monogram, motto, date of establishment, or some sort of inscription on a scroll or tablet. When used to display a family’s coat of arms, the central display would naturally take the form of a shield. Do a search for “shield” on Google Images and you will see just how diverse the shapes are, but there is one in particular that might lead us to an answer for our puzzle.
If we look at the quandary in a literal sense and assume our kidney shape is meant to resemble an actual shield, there are only a few examples of such shields in history. They reach back to the Greco-Roman Empire particularly a 300 year window between the 12th and 14th centuries BC and the ancient city of Troy. Whether oblong or round, the shields we are concerned with had “cut-outs,” two on opposite sides or only one along the edge. They allowed a soldier to reach beyond his shield with his sword while maintaining a protective stance.
In literature, culture, and tradition from the ancient days of Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire the kidneys held a place of honor as one of the “noble entrails” or “vital parts” in the religious practice of animal sacrifice to the gods of those cultures. The fatter the sacrifice, the greater the honor, hence the importance of killing a fatted calf to feast a guest of honor. The kidneys and the fat surrounding them were considered particularly pure and sacred because they were the deepest, most difficult organs to reach as they were hidden beneath the other organs and a thick layer of fat. A sacrifice of this kind was the very best of what could be offered. In the Bible, their traditional significance in sacrifice made the kidneys symbolic of the “most hidden part of man,” a metaphor for conscience, the seat of morality, and in some translations, the “reins” by which a man is lead. Taking a figurative approach, perhaps the shape is meant to symbolize the best of the best as we will explore.
Here’s another little slice of history. In the mid to late 1700s the Rococo style reached the New World in what would become known as American Rococo style which blended the florid ornamentation of the Rococo with the practicality shallower pockets demanded. The significance of this fact is that it was the last style to be accomplished by colonial artisans before the Industrial Revolution replaced the majority of handmade furniture with pressed woods and machine fabricated pieces. New England was a hotspot for both movements, most notably, the port city of Philadelphia which had become the busiest, most populous city in British America by the 1750s and would serve as the birthplace of the American Declaration of Independence only 26 years later about halfway through the American Revolution. Needless to say, there was a lot going on around that time! The kidney shield was so popular in Philadelphia-style furniture that serious collectors know it as the “Philadelphia peanut” and debate the authenticity of original New America pieces.
My final theory is also the least exciting, and for that I will apologize. There may be no deep significance to puzzle. The shape itself may have been favored simply for its asymmetry and perhaps gained popularity in Philadelphia as an American Rococo fad.
Having developed Theory 2, I have to admit, the “ribbons” are starting to look a lot like the pictures I came across while researching actual kidneys, but I’m not cruel enough to take you there in this post. Maybe the eyes see what they want to see.
Whether the shape bares any connection to a cartouche’s use for a coat of arms on an actual shield, a symbolic boast for “the best of the best” during a time when early America was coming into her own, or was simply a shape favored for the asymmetry the Rococo style demands, the information was certainly fun to dig through. I hope you found this information as interesting as we did. If you’re interested in learning more, my favorite source for this article was the book “American Rococo, 1750–1775: Elegance in Ornament” by Morrison H. Heckscher and Leslie Greene Bowman (1992).