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Once in a while an exhibition comes along that achieves many things. It illuminates past and present, and does so by creating a viewing experience both beautiful and instructive. All the better when such an exhibition also brightens up a blind spot in the history of art. The exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens achieved this. Curated by Wolfram Koeppe, Maria Kellen French Curator of European Decorative Arts, the show was a monographic investigation of father-and-son furniture makers Abraham (1711–1793) and David Roentgen (1743–1807), whose workshop in the German town of Neuwied produced furniture for the European elite between 1743 and 1800. By my estimation this was the decorative arts show of the decade, an educationally illuminating and utterly enjoyable museum experience whose rewards far exceeded, in the words of a colleague of mine, the opportunity to look at “old desks.”
David Roentgen is prominent enough to be represented in many major American and European collections. Abraham is less well known, but part of this exhibition’s strength was in demonstrating that many of the son’s ideas originated with his father. For those unfamiliar with the Roentgens, the pair’s international activity and cunning business acumen surely came as an intriguing surprise. This is especially so in the case of David, whose ambitious commercial activities were comparable to those of Josiah Wedgwood and other artist-scientist-businessmen of the Enlightenment. What makes the Roentgens’ case so unusual is that they were members of a Pietistic religious community whose spiritual identity was grounded in concepts of modesty, asceticism, and simplicity. Abraham entered the Herrnhuter Moravian movement, based at Neuwied, after achieving substantial success as a cabinetmaker in London. David was born into this community, but that did not stop him from developing a luxury goods business that catered to an extensive clientele. Sometimes this came at great personal cost, never more so than when he was banished from Neuwied in 1765 for excessive commercial activity.
Also striking is the degree to which these objects’ production and distribution reached beyond their local context. This could be as simple as contracting for bronze mounts from Anna Catharina Kern, a widow in nearby Koblenz who produced high-quality metalwork for many Roentgen pieces, or working with the clockmaker Peter Kinzing to provide mechanical components for timepieces, automatons, and musical instruments. But it could be even broader still. David Roentgen ordered brass mounts en masse from Birmingham, England, and sourced rare woods from around the world. He developed the habit of producing exceptional objects and sending them to prominent monarchs unannounced to stimulate business. He chose his targets quite strategically, as in the case of Charles Alexander of Lorraine, governor of the Austrian Netherlands and a notorious shopaholic. Roentgen operated similarly with Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, with Frederick the Great of Prussia and his successors, and later very lucratively with Catherine the Great. Such ventures required Roentgen to travel, and he personally oversaw the delivery of pieces to Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and St. Petersburg. The Roentgen workshop may have been located in placid Neuwied, but its products reached far across the continent and were purchased by some of its most exalted individuals.
The Met exhibition was installed in the special exhibition galleries on the museum’s ground floor. In purely spatial terms, this was a modest show of just three rooms. It began with a series of pieces by Abraham, presented to demonstrate his stylistic range. Several were made specifically for Johann Philipp, Count Walderdorff, a German prince whom the Roentgens targeted for business. One particularly interesting juxtaposition indicated how much the workshop tailored their objects to clients’ tastes. A triangular corner commode by Abraham Roentgen was made in a sumptuous rococo aesthetic entirely consistent with the work of Charles Cressent. Its curving legs and undulating surfaces, intricate marquetry, gilded mounts, and marble top all resemble French examples. It was designed for Walderdorff, who preferred such highly ornamented furniture. Shown beside it was a writing desk made just three years later for Landgrave Wilhelm IX of Hessen-Kassel. With its simplified profile, rectilinear surfaces, and restrained ornament, it resembles Chippendale designs and speaks to Wilhelm’s anglophile taste.
One then turned to the first of many showpiece desks that became the hallmark of the Roentgen studio. To call them “desks” is really a misnomer. They are freestanding multipurpose decorated containers of great physical and mechanical complexity. A typical example is the writing desk made for Count Walderdorff and now in the Rijksmuseum. When closed, this object displays a complex series of marquetry scenes on its exterior surfaces, including landscapes and architectural vedute constructed in correct one-point linear perspective. Some woods are polished, others stained, yet others abraded with files or hot sand to produce desired textures and shadings. A first key opens the desk’s slanted cover to reveal numerous interior drawers, removable boxes, writing surfaces, candleholders, and other secret compartments. A second key opens the side drawers, which contain multiple additional compartments, some accessible only through a specific sequence of actions. Drawers open to reveal additional drawers; metal ornaments extend when pressed; and the entire process is controlled by a minutely coordinated series of hidden springs, lead weights, mechanisms, and locks. There is even a prie dieu that descends to turn the entire desk into an altar complete with a rotating tiered tabernacle for devotional statues. And this is just one of several desks made in this manner. Such intricacies recast the eighteenth-century obsession with access and privacy into the inner workings of furniture, bridging the divide between furniture and machinery. They are really in all but name the latter: highly elaborate machines for elite activity, knowledge, storage, and display. They vividly exemplify Mimi Hellman’s insights concerning how eighteenth-century furniture relates to the body and how specialized social knowledge could be coded into furniture’s design (Mimi Hellman, “Furniture, Sociability and the Work of Leisure in Eighteenth-Century France,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 32, no. 4 [Summer 1999]: 415–445; idem., “The Joy of Sets: The Uses of Seriality in the French Interior,” in Dena Goodman and Kathryn Norberg, eds., Furnishing the Eighteenth Century: What Furniture Can Tell Us About the European and American Past, New York: Routledge, 2006, 129–153).
From there the exhibition opened into two larger rooms, the first of which was organized around an automaton of a woman playing a small keyboard instrument. This piece, presented to Marie Antoinette in 1785, was intended purely to flatter. The automaton resembles her and plays two different melodies by Christoph Willibald Gluck. Dominating this room, however, is the imposing twelve-foot-tall secretary cabinet done for the Prussian heir presumptive Frederick Wilhelm. The third version of this piece that the Roentgens made—the others were for Charles Alexander and Louis XVI, respectively—it was designed as an exceptional showpiece. One finds in it illusionistic colored marquetry scenes done in a meticulous technique called à la mosaïque; a writing cabinet with spaces for materials and papers; a storage unit with numerous hidden and locked compartments; a fully functioning mechanical clock; hidden mechanized musical instruments that play music in emulation of flutes, cymbals, and glockenspiels; jewel boxes; and several trompe l’oeil interior spaces that reproduce palatial interiors in miniature. An entire writing desk, complete with copy stand, inkwells, and storage containers emerges when the key is turned in a specific way. All of this made from at least a dozen different kinds of wood, plus ivory, mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, gilt bronze, brass, iron, and silk, pieced together like the most convoluted three-dimensional puzzle imaginable. The final room, the exhibition’s largest and most diverse, contained musical instruments, clocks, more desks and tables, and a selection of classically inspired pieces produced for the Russian market.
Accompanying the exhibition is a fully illustrated catalogue that closely follows the narrative presented in the galleries. It begins with a series of scholarly essays that shed additional light on the Roentgens’ activities. These mostly are of a factual and documentary nature and avoid interpretive elaboration; it would have been good to include an essay or two that expanded beyond this basic intellectual framework. Koeppe’s contribution surveys the Roentgens’ lives and careers. Bernd Willscheid examines them in the wider social context, especially the Herrnhuter’s Moravian religion. Then come four related essays, each targeting one of the Roentgens’ major patronage arenas. Reinier Baarsen examines the Roentgens’ interaction with the Austrian Netherlands; Bertrand Rondot outlines their relationship to the royal court at Versailles; Achim Stiegel and Tamara Rappe cover Prussia and Russia, respectively. A series of appendices offers extended conservational and technical information. Particularly interesting is a short essay on hidden mechanisms in Roentgen furniture written by Daniela Meyer and Hans-Werner Pape, complete with computer-generated diagrams of a desk’s interior workings.
Of special note is the exhibition’s use of digital technology to illustrate how these furniture pieces work. Positioned in front of objects in the galleries were a series of small video screens that allowed viewers to select short videos of desks being opened, automatons performing, and other examples of use. These films were constantly on while I viewed the exhibition; even better, they encouraged visitors to look carefully at the objects. Never have I seen so many museumgoers crouching, crawling, and stretching to comprehend things on display, nor have I ever heard so many impromptu conversations struck up among strangers commenting on what they discovered. Twelve of these videos are available on the Met’s webpage alongside audio files of sounds from three Roentgen clocks. While in my experience gallery videos are often superfluous and distracting, here they lived up to their educational charge, clarifying these complex historical objects through a demonstration of their mechanical movements.
By revealing that mechanical artistry, Extravagant Inventions resonated with a series of concerns well beyond those traditionally associated with the staid decorative arts. The Roentgens’ products bewitch in many ways. They impress through the rarity and costliness of their materials; the skill, planning, and patience required to produce such objects in a pre-industrial world; their close connection to famous historical figures; the commercial shrewdness behind their business; and their incorporation of automata, music, and timepieces into furniture. But what the public seemed to love most were the ways in which these desks, commodes, and clocks displayed breathtaking feats of ingenuity through a mixture of artistry and mechanics. To see technology presented in harmony with art, as part of beautiful objects that ensorcelled the eye but also dazzled by what they could do—this made for a powerful experience that illuminated our modern fascination with seductively packaged technology. The exhibition also suggested how the divide between beauty and mechanics, between pleasure and functionality, was bridged in a specific historical context. My hunch is that Steve Jobs would have loved it.
I left the galleries pondering something more pointed. Why are the Roentgens not more central to art-historical studies? One answer is that they were on the wrong side of art history’s discursive formation, not least because products like theirs came to be classified outside of the increasingly proscribed domain of “high art.” David Roentgen seems to have recognized the impending changes and in 1779 produced for Charles Alexander two huge (11’ x 12’) marquetry wall panels representing The Continence of Scipio and The Sabine Women Pleading for Peace with the Romans, subjects chosen in direct evocation of academic history painting and intended to illustrate his chosen medium’s potential. If the purpose of this exhibition was to bring this artistry to light again, to elucidate its importance, to connect it to our own modern fascination with aestheticized technology, and to prompt us to question why we categorize one kind of object making as more important than another, then it certainly succeeded. It further illustrated something I have come to suspect recently. As the digitalization of museum experiences continues—the increasing use of social media, YouTube, podcasts, smartphone apps, and such to expand upon and contribute to an engagement with historical objects—the real winner in that process may very well be the decorative arts. They, arguably more than many paintings, benefit enormously from the kinds of multimedia virtual experiences now available. Extravagant Inventions not only used technology to reveal its objects’ capabilities, it also suggested that these desks and commodes exist on a continuum with a certain strain of modern aestheticized technology, as predecessors that may just hint at how we got here.
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Missouri