A cellarette is a specialized furniture form designed for the storage of wine and liquor. Distinctly different from a wine cooler, with its metal-lined interior designed to chill its contents, cellarettes functioned as diminutive cellars positioned in the dining room, usually en suite with a sideboard. The most common cellarettes had the capacity to hold four bottles upright. The larger, more elaborate sarcophagus­shaped cellarettes could hold four more bottles horizontally, providing for the proper storage of fortified wine such as port and Madeira.
The concept of the cellarette owes its heritage to late-eighteenth century British design. The English dining room tradition employed eating rooms, where guests could pass a great deal of time. Architect Robert Adam believed it desirable to fit these rooms with elegant, classically inspired appointments, including specialized furniture that could accommodate several bottles of wine. To answer most needs, Adam designed a symmetrical, harmonious ensemble comprising a marble-topped sideboard table, with a wine cooler underneath, flanked by a pair of pedestals with urns. These elements eventually developed into a sideboard with matching cellarette.[1] In the early nineteenth century, the formality of me American dining room and design of its elements began to follow the British precedent. Expandable tables, accompanied by matching chairs, servers, sideboards, and cellarettes, filled these rooms in fashionable American neoclassical townhouses, featuring architectural elements borrowed from antiquity.
American experimentation with the cellarette began in 1795 with three in oval and round shapes. The sarcophagus-shaped cellarettes were first published in a London design book in 1803. Shortly thereafter in America, this form became the most costly and desired, playing an integral role in dining rituals and reflecting the archaeological revival of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures that typified the aesthetics of American furniture during the first decades of the nineteenth century.[2] From the standpoint of form, decoration, and quality, the sphinx cellarette is a rare example of American furniture.
The tour de force of American cellarette design is seen in the two closely related sphinx cellarettes at the DIA and at Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven. Based on their construction and design, both were made at the same unidentified New York shop. They are similar in almost every aspect, only differing in the ormolu surrounding me lock and back finials. While their form is English in heritage, the decoration and fabrication is French inspired, as was common in New York neoclassical and empire furniture design.
This cellarette is distinctive, not only in the use of the sphinxes, but in the development of the overall form. Constructed to provide the illusion that the chest containing the precious liquids floats over the base, it is supported on the hindquarters of the sphinxes in the front and by a small, concealed post in the back. Intended to stand alone, without the related sideboard, this cellarette, which can hold six bottles upright and four on their sides, is larger than most American sarcophagus forms. Additionally, the compartment mat holds the vertical bottles is removable, suggesting that it could also serve as a wine cooler. James W. Tottis

Adapted from Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 81, nos. 1­–2 (2007): 10–11.

[1] The design was first published by furniture maker Thomas Shearer in 1793.
[2] I am most grateful to Susan Solny for her generosity in sharing her encyclopedic knowledge of American cellarettes, specifically the sarcophagus form. Her publications and numerous conversations proved invaluable in writing this piece. See S. Solny, “Some Unusual Stylistic Preferences in New York Cellarets Design 1810–1834,” Studies in Decorative Arts (fall/winter 1997–98): 83–128.
Artist American
  • Sphinx Cellarette
Date between 1815 and 1820
Medium rosewood, gilt and verd antique
Dimensions Overall: 30 1/4 × 34 1/8 × 22 1/4 inches (76.8 × 86.7 × 56.5 cm)
Credit Line Founders Society Purchase, Robert H. Tannahill Foundation Fund
Accession Number 1999.111
Department American Art before 1950
On View American W271, Level 2 (see map)
Nancy Albright Hurd;
Bill Eaton of Eaton Galleries;
partner in Eaton Galleries, Jim Fish;
Stuart Feld of Hirschl & Adler;
Richard Manney;
C.C. Deininger Gallery;
1999-present, purchase by the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, Michigan, USA)
Tracy, Berry B. and William H. Gerdts. Classical America: 1815-1835. Newark, 1966, no. 14.

Ward, Gerald W.R. American Case Furniture in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University. New Haven, 1988, pp. 442-444.

Neo-Classicism in America. Exh. cat., Hirschl & Adler. New York, 1991, p. 36, no. 19.

Cooper, Wendy A. Classical Taste in American, 1800-1840. New York, 1993, pp. 136-138.

Solney, Susan. “Some Unusually Stylistic Preference in New York Cellerette Design, 1810-1834.” Studies in Decorative Arts (Fall/Winter 1997-1998): pp. 83-128.

“American Decorative Arts Acquisitions 1985-2005.” Bulletin of the DIA 81, 1-2 (2007): pp. 10-11, 54.