Cabinet of Curiosities

February 26, 2012

By Mary Jo Gibson

Several weeks have passed since my last Cabinet of Curiosities, a change in work environment and new responsibilities have filled my hours since January.  But I am happy to share that these events have cycled through and I am able to return and share a new cabinet and other changes that will be coming to my blog.

This Cabinet is from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, once owned by Dominique Vivant-Denon, director of the mint and the Musee Napoleon (now the Musee du Louvre), as well as a collector and arbiter of taste during the Napoleonic period.  He accompanied the Egyptian campaign of 1798-99 as a draftsman and published his drawings in 1802.  The pylon at Ghoos, in Upper Egypt, served as the model for the top section of this medal cabinet, which was intended for Napoleon but remained in Denon’s possession.

The front and back panels are inlaid with a silver scarab flanked by uraei (sacred serpents) on lotus stalks.  There are twenty two drawers on each side of the cabinet, all inlaid with a silver bee, and one wing is hinged to provide a pull.  Take a closer look at the craftsmanship to appreciate the beauty of this cabinet.


John James Audubon

Opening the new Cabinet of Curiosities is the story of John James Audubon’s illustrated “Birds of America”, one of the largest books ever published.  Measuring three feet tall with 400 life size pictures of American bird species, this collection was purchased at auction for $7.9 million through Christie’s auction house.

John James Audubon, 1785-1851

To leaf through the pages of this literary treasure and view the life like illustrations is truly a connoisseur’s dream.   Audubon’s influence on ornithology and natural history was far reaching.  Later ornithological works were inspired by his artistry and high standards.  Charles Darwin quoted Audubon three times in “On the Origin of Species” and in later works.  His significant contribution to the understanding of bird anatomy and behavior is still the highest standard for comparison to date.


Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allen Poe, 1809-1849

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is remembered as a novelist, editor and poet, but in his day, it was conchology that helped pay the bills.  While living in Philadelphia  during 1838, Poe took on the most unusual project of his literary career, acting as a writer for hire to his neighbor, Thomas Wyatt.  The idea was that Poe’s recognizable name on the title page of Wyatt’s edition of Thomas Brown’s “Conchologist’s Text Book” would spur sales.  Poe, who was paid $50 for his efforts, contributed to the preface and introduction.  Wyatt contributed most of the scientific detail (unattributed)  and Brown the bulk of the text (unattributed).  This led to years of mistaken claims that Poe had plagiarized his only published work in the natural sciences.  It was the only one of his works to enjoy a second edition during his lifetime.

Mr. Poe will be the subject of a new movie starring John Cusack, The Raven, a fictionalized account of his final days.  Perhaps the film will renew interest in the career of this celebrated author.


The Louvre

“Street in Cairo” was part of an 1889 Universal Exhibition at the Louvre, a spectacular project reconstructing architectural elements from houses and monuments of style.   Organized by Baron Alphonse Delort de Gleon (1849-1899), a resident of Egypt for more than thirty years, the Mamluk porch was disassembled and transported by boat from Port Said to Le Havre in order to be included in the exhibition.  The four meter high porch could not be reassembled due to the project’s technical complexity and has remained hidden in the storage of the Louvre for more than 100 years.

The Mashrabiya with stained glass panels comes from the private home of Edmond de Rothschild, who had a Moorish smoking room installed in his Paris mansion.  These wooden elements were very popular in the Ottoman period, located on the facades of the upper floors of wealthy Cairo homes. The stained glass panels are adorned with floral motifs typical of the Ottoman period, tulips, carnations and irises.  Several are from the collection amassed by Baron de Gleon during his time in Cairo.

If these architectural elements are what is to be found in the storage rooms of the Louvre, one wonders what other masterpieces are hidden away, and what stories are waiting to be discovered.


Walters Art Museum

These lacquered doors come from Iran, produced between 1850-1910, are found at the Walters Art Museum.  Decorated with ornamental, floral and figural motifs that recall the 17th century Safavid period designs; including men and women from the court, banquet and hunting scenes, animals in combat, and fantastic creatures.  One of the male figures in the lower border of the right door is dressed in Portuguese clothing, demonstrating Iran’s contact with Western cultures in the 17th century.


Stearns Collection

A collection of musical instruments that spans centuries and continents, worth an estimated $25 million, are packed and stacked in an out of the way storage room with water stained ceilings.  Not the environment envisioned for them when Frederick Stearns gave the University of Michigan the base of the collection more than a century ago with instructions they be exhibited – not invisible.

“The collection has been in a holding pattern for 112 years.  This is a national treasure – it deserves the dignity of either being properly housed, or dispersed in such a way that it could be,” says Steven Ball, director of the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments.

17th century book of Gregorian chants

Last seen prior to their removal from Hill Auditorium in 1974, the 2,500+ instruments are finally on display again-digitally.  More than 12,000 color photographs are available online in a searchable catalog offering a plethora of never before seen information.    May aficionados and researchers make this unique collection viable again through the digital nomenclature.


Leonardo Live

I was fortunate to view Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan from the National Gallery as a new digital feature at my local theater.  Unable to travel to London, presenting an art show in this medium is a great way to experience the retrospective.  Given the popularity of ballet, opera and symphony performances in high definition theater viewing, this expansion for the arts provides a new revenue stream for museums, bringing a world-wide audience to see these historical paintings.
While I was disappointed the supporting works displayed in the gallery were not shown, the movie centered on the seven paintings featured at the museum.   As the first of what are many more exhibitions to be featured in theaters, I can only hope for better writing and more historical context.  I did learn a bit about Leonardo and his work habits, and a few historical references to his patrons, but I came away with the feeling that the best information had been rejected in favor of interviews with guests.

Christ as Salvator Mundi

The most intriguing aspect of the show is the newly attributed “Christ as Salvator Mundi.”  A proportionate amount of time was spent on comparison with the other paintings, and I found myself agreeing that Leonardo had been involved in the process of this image.  The hands in particular have a grace found in other da Vinci paintings; but to me, the eyes are not by the same hand.  As discussed at length in the movie, Leonardo habitually failed to finish paintings; often completion was only accomplished through his workshop of trained artists.  Leonardo was an industrious individual, producing war machines for Cesare Borgia; a musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer; his work habits are well documented as he moved through the subjects that interested him at the moment.  I invite your comments on comparison of this image to other Leonardo works in the space provided below.


Thank you for joining me again for my feature, Cabinet of Curiosities.  My site statistics during my absence tell me that history and art are a constant interest to many individuals.  Continuing this dialogue and introducing forgotten artisans to the digital world is my passion.  I will be updating with a Museum Monday, returning again to my regular format now that life has calmed from the recent storm.


Mary Jo



Filed under February

5 responses to “Cabinet of Curiosities

  1. Leonard Grossman

    Welcome back. You were curiously missed.


  2. Thank you Len! I am fired up with new content and ready to fill the blog world with my thoughts. Bought one of those fancy iPad things, as I plan to be including content from apps too.

  3. Glad at your return!

    Art treasures “lost” in the basements and storage rooms of museums and universities…one could make a tidy living contracting with those institutions to do a little housecleaning. Or, barring that, it’s grist for an intriguing novel.

  4. I’d take a summer of research in a musty storehouse to write that novel! There is always a story to be found in the shadowy corners of a forgotten place;
    that box barely containing its contents, wrapped in twine…

  5. Reblogged this on EMPOWERED RESULTS ~ Creating A Difference In Our Communities… and commented:
    As I am reading email from work, I stopped to help a friend find a specific shadow box. Not only I found the shadow box for her, I came across this interesting post by MJ. What an intriguing item!!! The details are fantastic!

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