Constitution Mirrors

Constitution Mirrors

The term Constitution Mirror is modern usage, some would say ‘collector’s terminology’, to describe a specific form of high-style Chippendale mirror.

These mirrors, mostly of English manufacture in mahogany or mahogany veneer, were made from approximately 1720 to 1820 and all contain several common elements. Virtually all of them have swan neck pediments, often gilded, centering an ornamental finial. This finial frequently takes the form of a bird with wings extended and is commonly referred to as an eagle, giving rise to the definition that a Constitution mirror is any mirror surmounted by an eagle, a statement inaccurate in several respects. In fact the bird finial is almost always a phoenix, a commonplace element in the English classical vocabulary. Also, quite often the finial is not a bird at all, but a shell, a floral bouquet or an urn.

Below the mirror’s classical pediment and its entablature, the Constitution mirror has mahogany stiles flanked by a carved string of foliate elements. In some examples these carved and gilded elements are applied directly to the mirror’s frame, but in many examples they are strung on wires down the sides of the mirror. Due to the frame’s height, the original reflective surface often comprised two glass plates, a smaller one at the top and a larger plate below. The smaller plate was usually left blank, but occasionally it displayed a simple cut motif.

The lower portion of Constitution mirrors all have a generous shaped mahogany apron with prominent scrolled ‘ears’ in the lower corners, all edged with gilt carving.

The origin of the name given these mirrors is not known. Constitution mirrors are large (54″ to 68″ high is typical), formal pieces suitable for prestigious homes and public spaces. This has led some to believe that they were used in the homes of prominent founders of the Revolutionary era (they were known to have been used at Mount Vernon, for instance) or early Federal period or in public buildings such as the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were adopted. As the mirror’s form is unique and appropriate for this use, the association of the name with the era is understandable. In the mother country, however, the mirror is commonly found in grand salons and public ceremonial rooms where it is simply referred to as a gilt Chippendale mirror.

Reference note prepared by editorial staff, 07.09.

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