Welcome to this week’s Cabinet of Curiosities, with a special visit to the new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Extravagant Inventions, The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens. As always, the drawers hold even more mysteries, so let’s begin!
Abraham Roentgen, 1711-1793, may have lived life as a cabinet maker, but his works were in the castles and private homes of the aristocracy, such was the outstanding quality. He was admired in England for his interesting use of inlay, inventive mechanical fittings and the hidden drawers he used in his furniture.
Another feature found at this exhibition is the Automaton of Queen Marie Antoinette which I featured on this blog when the Google Art Project went to the Palace of Versailles. This exquisite piece was produced by David Roentgen, 1743-1807, Abraham’s son. Expanding the business with shops in Berlin and Saint Petersburg, David sold furniture to Catherine the Great of Russia. This suite is believed to still be in the Palace of the Hermitage, the hiding place of so much remarkable and forgotten art.
The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars signaled the end of David Roentgen’s career. The Revolutionary government regarded him as an émigré, seized the contents of his showrooms and his personal belongings. Following the invasion of Neuwied, his workshops closed and prosperity never returned; he died half ruined at Wiesbaden in 1807; albeit, the craftsmanship of this family of cabinet makers survived, perhaps to inspire a new generation.
“In a fall art season distinguished, so far, largely by a bland, no-brainer diet served up by Manhattan’s major museums, you have to hit the road for grittier fare.”
When an art reviewer begins with the above sentence, it can only mean more to come of a witty, well written article celebrating a new exhibition at the Walters Art Museum, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe. Surprising links to ruling dynasties, and long ignored history is the focus of Joaneath Spicer, the museum’s curator of Renaissance and Baroque art.
Agnolo Bronzino produced a portrait of Alessandro de Medici, who ruled Florence for seven years before being assassinated in 1537. He is considered by historians to be the illegitimate child of Giulio de Medici, Pope Clement VII, and a black or biracial woman. His dark skin was remarked on by contemporaries who nicknamed him Il Moro.
The portrait of Maria Salviati de Medici and Giula de Medici (1539) shows a child of the Italian aristocracy with black facial features, confirming the intermingling of African and European blood in the Medici family. My own research on the Journey of the Magi fleshed out the story of Carlo di Cosimo de Medici, 1430-1492. The illegitimate son of Cosimo de Medici and a Circassian slave name Magdelene.
The reviewer of this exhibition has supplied me with the final explanation of why I prefer historical art: “…one of the saving graces of art – what keeps you coming back – is that it isn’t a bottom-line business. You think you’ve come to an end, a conclusion, and there’s always more: the exception, the extension.” Like the many drawers in the cabinet, each waiting to be opened, explored, and imagined. Thank you Holland Cotter, for taking that trip to Baltimore!
A coat of arms and this painting tell another great drama from the time of travel on the high seas. Painted by John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark depicts Brook Watson, 1735-1807, as the young merchant seaman in great peril. Watson survived, but lost the power of his right leg in the attack. He went on to great success in business and politics, even serving as Lord Mayor of London. When he became a Baronet in 1803, Watson specified that the coat of arms designed to mark the honor must include a visual reference to his ordeal more than half a century earlier. Thus the upper left of the crest depicts the leg Watson lost to the shark in 1749, and the motto Scuto Divino means “under god’s protection.”
A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
The first flowering of images of “the wolf in sheep’s clothing” type occurred in Germany and the Netherlands during the Protestant Reformation. While the iconography is now difficult to puzzle out, an anonymous engraving dated 1580 from the Netherlands casts the dastardly Spanish invader, the Duke of Alva, and his forces as foxes in clerical garb, and the courageous Dutch nobles as geese. These humorously be-spectacled fowl routed the Spaniards back out to sea from the recently captured town of Brielle. This surprise counter attack occurred on April Fool’s Day, 1572. The town’s name literally translates as spectacles, so afterwards it was often said that the Duke had lost his glasses on April 1.
Thank you for joining me for this week’s Cabinet of Curiosities! A short trip to New York, Baltimore, Boston, and Europe, but with so many interesting pieces of art and vignettes of history to experience. Museum Monday will be coverage of the Chazen Museum and the Uffizi paintings and tapestries. I look forward to chatting with you!
A late entry sent to me about the upcoming Vincent Van Gogh movie, Loving Vincent. Take a moment to watch this unique animation telling his story, it will make you thirsty for more!