One of the highlights of my recent trip to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art was a splendid show, Extravagant Inventions; The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens. If you are planning a trip to the Met in the next month and have only time for one thing, make it this. The show is on view through January 27, and is located just beyond the Greco-Roman collection. I stumbled into it by accident, and was loathe to leave it at all.
Big names always spring to mind when one thinks of “must-see” shows, so forgive me a few words while I enthuse about the Roentgens. The workshop of Abraham Roentgen (1711-1793) and his son, David (1743-1807), was responsible for some of the most beautiful (and fantastic) furniture of the era. Desks, automatons, grand clocks – all of these are on hand. Aside from being exquisitely crafted works of great beauty, they are also intriguing puzzles: many of them unfold to reveal hidden compartments, secret drawers or games and mechanical devices.
The key word to the Roentgen style is grandeur – these are pieces to savor. The Roentgens were based in Herrnhaag, in the Wetterau region near Frankfurt. He was soon recognized by the local nobility and he moved his shop to Neuwied-at-the-Rhine in 1750. It was his son David, however, who was responsible for the greatest successes of the workshop. His sophisticated designs and playful clockwork precisions resulted in his being appointed Ebéniste-Méchanicien du Roi et de la Reine at the court of Queen Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI at Versailles in 1779. He also created furniture for Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, and she became his most important client/patron.
Sadly, it was the very seeds of his success that also led to Roentgen’s downfall: with the French Revolution, his royals clients could not sustain a taste for royal appointments, and his workshop folded.
Extravagant Inventions draws on works from the Metropolitan Museum’s own holdings, as well as pieces from Berlin’s Kunstgewerbe Museum that have never before traveled, most notably a mechanical Secretary Cabinet (1779) made for King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia that is one of the most complex and expensive pieces of royal furniture ever produced. When the exhibition ends, four objects from the Kunstgewerbe Museum—The Harlequin Table (ca. 1760-65), a pair of marquetry portraits depicting an elderly woman and an elderly man (1775-80), and the aforementioned Secretary Cabinet—will remain on loan to the Metropolitan Museum for an additional nine months and will be on view in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries.
The show is superbly lit, and the pieces are comfortably spaced. There are several monumental clocks on view, all of which are works of remarkable craftsmanship. One of the real highlights of the show is a clockwork harpsichord player, which is both beautiful and tuneful. The muted colors of the walls bring out the luster of the wood, and the feeling of being in such luxury is delicious. Here is art and form unified; the spectacularly beautiful becomes the sublimely functional. It is a show than designers and manufacturers should see and take to heart.
The Metropolitan also provides video supplements showing the many secret drawers and hiding places to be found in the furniture, as well as a video of the elaborate musical automaton. There is also a fully illustrated catalogue edited by Wolfram Koeppe, the first appreciation of the Roentgens in English for more than 30 years. It is a sumptuously designed book and comes highly recommended.