Tag Archives: Walters Art Museum

Turn the key. Open another door…

Cabinet, antiques, antiquities, Metropolitan Museum of Art, David Roentgen

Cabinet lock from desk designed by David Roentgen

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!

antiques, antiquities, Metropolitan Museum of Art, David Roentgen, Abraham Roentgen

Rolltop Desk by Roentgen

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.

Versailles, Google Art Project, Queen Marie Antoinette, Automaton

Automaton of Queen Marie Antoinette

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.

Walters Art Museum, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, New Times, Holland Cotter

Three Mulattoes of Esmereldas, 1599, Andres Sanchez Gallque

“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.

Walters Art Museum, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe

Portrait of Maria Salviate de Medici and Giulia de Medici, 1539

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!

Watson and the Shark, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, coat of arms, history

Watson and the Shark, 1778, John Singleton Copley

Scuto Divino

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

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, Chicago Art Institute, Vote Early and Vote Often

Allegory on the Defeat of the Duke of Alva at Brielle

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!



Leave a comment

Filed under November

Cabinet of Curiosities

By Mary Jo Gibson

October 26, 2012

Imagine receiving this priceless, courtship box, dated 1300-1350, carved with scenes from romances and literature of the day.  Each panel represents the courtly ideals of love and heroism; on the lid knights joust as ladies watch from the balcony; on the left, knights lay siege to the Castle of Love, the subject of an allegorical battle.  The remaining scenes on the casket are drawn from the stories about Aristotle and Phyllis, Tristan and Iseult; tales of the heroic and gallant, the deeds of Gwain, Galahad and Lancelot.

The origins are medieval French, the box made of ivory and bone with iron mounts.  The mounts were added when the box was in the Spitzer collection.  The box was originally mounted in silver, but the pieces were dismounted while in the Douce collection, 1836, and remounted with iron in the Spitzer collection in 1890.  Photographs show the casket once stood on four bronze feet shaped like lions which were added to the casket sometime after 1913, when it belonged to Henri Daguerre.  The provenance of this antiquity begins in 1780 when it was recorded in drawings while in the collection of Reverend John Bowle (b. 1725, d. 1788), Wiltshire.  One can only begin to imagine the mementos placed in this casket over time, or the love that inspired such a gift.

Meeting on the Turret Stairs

Frederick William Burton 1816-1900

Images of courtly love have influenced artists for centuries, the stories never cease to inspire.  The theme of this painting comes from a medieval Danish balled which describes how Helelil fell in love with Hildebrand, Prince of Engelland, one of her twelve personal guards.  Her father ordered his seven sons to kill him.

They stood at the door with spear and shield;

‘Up Lord Hildebrand! Out and yield!’

He kissed me then mine eyes above:

‘Say never my name, thou darling love’

Out of the door Lord Hildebrand sprang,

Around his head the sword he swang.

Hildebrand kills her father and six brothers before Hellelil intercedes to save the youngest.  Hildebrand dies of his wounds and Hellelil herself dies shortly afterwards.

Burton did not choose a violent episode and instead freely interpreted the story, placing their farewell on the turret stairs and leaving the reason for it to the imagination.  His invention of a chaste kiss on the woman’s outstretched arm and the lack of eye contact adds to the poignancy of the painting.

The Skull Watch of Mary Queen of Scots

This Memento-Mori watch presented by Mary Queen of Scots to her attendant Mary Seaton, is from the 16th century.  The forehead of the skull is engraved with a figure of death between a palace and a cottage, and a quotation in Latin, ‘pale death visits with impartial foot the cottages of the poor and castles of the rich’. (Horace)

The skull is held upside down and the jaw lifted to read the silver dial.  The hour is struck on a bell.  Made by Moyant A. Blois (1570-90).  The skull is silver gilt and engraved with figures of death with his scythe and hourglass, Adam and Eve and the crucifixion.  The lower part of the skull is pierced to emit the sound when it strikes.  The works occupy the brain’s position in the skull fitting into a silver bell which fills the entire hollow of the skull.  The hours are struck on this bell by a small hammer.

Tudor Death’s Head Ring

An exceptionally rare Tudor Memento Mori ring, circa1550-1600.  Such rings were a timely reminder of the importance of spiritual preparation for death.   One is listed in Henry VIII’s inventory:  “A ring of golde with a deathes hedde.”

I will close the lid on this Cabinet of Curiosities with this image of the Tower of London, the famous ravens overlooking the wall, as if perusing the incoming prisoners being ferried to the fateful gate on the Thames.

Enjoy the Halloween festivities, and look for my next post about The Raft of Medusa on Museum Monday.



Filed under October