Carved Cupboard Doors
The stylised dolphin motif appears in many forms on furniture, tapestries, sculptures and paintings throughout the Renaissance and later Renaissance Revival periods of French creative arts.
The myths alluding to dolphins date back several millennia to Ancient Greek and Roman legends. They were regarded by seafarers as portents of good luck and well-being. There are numerous stories of dolphins rescuing drowning sailors and even of them guiding ships through treacherous straits. They were said to be the transport of the Gods across the seas.
Cupid Riding a Dolphin. Peter Paul Rubens 1636
The Stylised Dolphin first appears on the coat of arms of Guy IV, Count of Vienne in the Dauphiné region in South East France in the 13th century. In the 14th century his descendent Guy VIII sold his holdings to the French crown with the proviso that thenceforth the heir to the throne would carry the title “Dauphin”, a tradition that endured until the French Revolution.
In French the word for Dolphin is Dauphin, hence the connection.
The dolphins in the early paintings and mosaics from Ancient Greek and Roman times depict a quite different creature than the friendly smiling faces we remember from Seaworld and Disney cartoons. Until late medieval times they were thought to be fish. The Greeks and Romans show them with scales, sharp teeth, often with tusks and even hair. One can only assume that later-day sculptors, artists and artisans had never met a dolphin in the flesh and relied heavily on the ancient depictions in their portrayals.
Carvings on French furniture, as well as the cast metal legs, usually represent a diving dolphin, often in pairs entwined around a floral bouquet or a cornucopia of ripe fruit. All said to represent good health, new life and abundance.
Our examples of dolphin motif in French Antique Furniture