Cabinet, a word with various applications which may be traced to two principal meanings, (1) a small private chamber, and (2) an article of furniture containing compartments formed of drawers, shelves, etc. The word is a diminutive of "cabin" and therefore properly means a small hut or shelter. This meaning is now obsolete; the New English Dictionary quotes from Leonard Digges's Stratioticos (published with additions by his son Thomas in 1579), "the Lance Knights encamp always in the field very strongly, two or three to a Cabbonet." From the use both of the article of furniture and of a small chamber for the safe-keeping of a collection of valuable prints, pictures, medals or other objects, the word is frequently applied to such a collection or to objects fit for such safe-keeping. The name of Cabinet du Roi was given to the collection of prints prepared by the best artists of the 17th century by order of Louis XIV. These were intended to commemorate the chief events of his reign, and also to reproduce the paintings and sculptures and other art treasures contained in the royal palaces. It was begun in 1667 and was placed under the superintendence of Nicholas Clement (1647 or 1651-1712), the royal librarian.
The collection was published in 1727. The plates are now in the Louvre. A "cabinet" edition of a literary work is one of somewhat small size, and bound in such a way as would suit a tasteful collection. The term is applied also to a size of photograph of a larger size than the carte de visite but smaller than the "panel." The political use of the term is derived from the private chamber of the sovereign or head of a state in which his advisers met.
The artificer who constructs furniture is still called a "cabinet-maker," although the manufacture of cabinets, properly so called, is now a very occasional part of his work. Cabinets can be divided into a very large number of classes according to their shape, style, period and country of origin; but their usual characteristic is that they are supported upon a stand, and that they contain a series of drawers and pigeon-holes. The name is, however, now given to many pieces of furniture for the safe-keeping or exhibition of valuable objects, which really answer very little to the old conception of a cabinet. The cabinet represented an evolution brought about by the necessities of convenience, and it appealed to so many tastes and needs that it rapidly became universal in the houses of the gentle classes, and in great measure took the impress of the peoples who adopted it. It would appear to have originated in Italy, probably at the very beginning of the 16th century. In its rudimentary form it was little more than an oblong box, with or without feet, small enough to stand upon a table or chair, filled with drawers and closed with doors. In this early form its restricted dimensions permitted of its use only for the safeguard of jewels, precious stones and sometimes money.
One of the earliest cabinets of which we have mention belonged to Francis I. of France, and is described as covered with gilt leather, tooled with mauresque work. As the Renaissance became general these early forms gave place to larger, more elaborate and more architectural efforts, until the cabinet became one of the most sumptuous of household adornments. It was natural that the countries which were earliest and most deeply touched by the Renaissance should excel in the designing of these noble and costly pieces of furniture. The cabinets of Italy, France and the Netherlands were especially rich and monumental. Those of Italy and Flanders are often of great magnificence and of real artistic skill, though like all other furniture their style was often grievously debased, and their details incongruous and bizarre. Flanders and Burgundy were, indeed, their lands of adoption, and Antwerp added to its renown as a metropolis of art by developing consummate skill in their manufacture and adornment. The cost and importance of the finer types have ensured the preservation of innumerable examples of all but the very earliest periods; and the student never ceases to be impressed by the extraordinary variety of the work of the 16th and 17th centuries, and very often of the 18th also.
The basis of the cabinet has always been wood, carved, polished or inlaid; but lavish use has been made of ivory, tortoise-shell, and those cut and polished precious stones which the Italians call pietra dura. In the great Flemish period of the 17th century the doors and drawers of cabinets were often painted with classical or mythological scenes. Many French and Florentine cabinets were also painted. In many classes the drawers and pigeon-holes are enclosed by folding doors, carved or inlaid, and often painted on the inner sides. Perhaps the most favourite type during a great part of the 16th and 17th centuries - a type which grew so common that it became cosmopolitan - was characterized by a conceit which acquired astonishing popularity. When the folding doors are opened there is disclosed in the centre of the cabinet a tiny but palatial interior. Floored with alternate squares of ebony and ivory to imitate a black and white marble pavement, adorned with Corinthian columns or pilasters, and surrounded by mirrors, the effect, if occasionally affected and artificial, is quite as often exquisite.
Although cabinets have been produced in England in considerable variety, and sometimes of very elegant and graceful form, the foreign makers on the whole produced the most elaborate and monumental examples. As we have said, Italy and the Netherlands acquired especial distinction in this kind of work. In France, which has always enjoyed a peculiar genius for assimilating modes in furniture, Flemish cabinets were so greatly in demand that Henry IV. determined to establish the industry in his own dominions. He therefore sent French workmen to the Low Countries to acquire the art of making cabinets, and especially those which were largely constructed of ebony and ivory. Among these workmen were Jean Macé and Pierre Boulle, a member of a family which was destined to acquire something approaching immortality. Many of the Flemish cabinets so called, which were in such high favour in France and also in England, were really armoires consisting of two bodies superimposed, whereas the cabinet proper does not reach to the floor. Pillared and fluted, with panelled sides, and front elaborately carved with masks and human figures, these pieces which were most often in oak were exceedingly harmonious and balanced.
Long before this, however, France had its own school of makers of cabinets, and some of their carved work was of the most admirable character. At a somewhat later date André Charles Boulle made many pieces to which the name of cabinet has been more or less loosely given. They were usually of massive proportions and of extreme elaboration of marquetry. The North Italian cabinets, and especially those which were made or influenced by the Florentine school, were grandiose and often gloomy. Conceived on a palatial scale, painted or carved, or incrusted with marble and pietra dura, they were intended for the adornment of galleries and lofty bare apartments where they were not felt to be overpowering. These North Italian cabinets were often covered with intarsia or marquetry, which by its subdued gaiety retrieved somewhat their heavy stateliness of form. It is, however, often difficult to ascribe a particular fashion of shape or of workmanship to a given country, since the interchange of ideas and the imports of actual pieces caused a rapid assimilation which destroyed frontiers. The close connexion of centuries between Spain and the Netherlands, for instance, led to the production north and south of work that was not definitely characteristic of either.
Spain, however, was more closely influenced than the Low Countries, and contains to this day numbers of cabinets which are not easily to be distinguished from the characteristic ebony, ivory and tortoise-shell work of the craftsmen whose skill was so rapidly acquired by the emissaries of Henry IV. The cabinets of southern Germany were much influenced by the models of northern Italy, but retained to a late date some of the characteristics of domestic Gothic work such as elaborately fashioned wrought-iron handles and polished steel hinges. Often, indeed, 17th-century South Germany work is a curious blend of Flemish and Italian ideas executed in oak and Hungarian ash. Such work, however interesting, necessarily lacks simplicity and repose. A curious little detail of Flemish and Italian, and sometimes of French later 17th-century cabinets, is that the interiors of the drawers are often lined with stamped gold or silver paper, or marbled ones somewhat similar to the "end papers" of old books. The great English cabinet-makers of the 18th century were very various in their cabinets, which did not always answer strictly to their name; but as a rule they will not bear comparison with the native work of the preceding century, which was most commonly executed in richly marked walnut, frequently enriched with excellent marquetry of woods.
Mahogany was the dominating timber in English furniture from the accession of George II. almost to the time of the Napoleonic wars; but many cabinets were made in lacquer or in the bright-hued foreign woods which did so much to give lightness and grace to the British style. The glass-fronted cabinet for China or glass was in high favour in the Georgian period, and for pieces of that type, for which massiveness would have been inappropriate, satin and tulip woods, and other timbers with a handsome grain taking a high polish were much used.