“Anyone who has seen one of Roentgen’s ingenious writing desks, where at a single touch many springs and hinges come into motion so that the writing surface and implements, pigeonholes for letters and money appear simultaneously or in quick succession – anyone who has seen one can imagine how that palace unfolded into which my sweet companion now drew me.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The New Melusine, 1816.
My family has been known in the field of what is known as FFF since the 1920’s when my uncle left Germany to work in Paris because he loved everything French, a German Francophile, if you will. FFF refers to Fine French Furniture of the 18th century. The pieces made for Royalty and the Aristocracy. Some of the best cabinetmakers in Paris were not French but German. Yet, it is still thought of as FFF.
Two of the latter were Abraham Roentgen (1718-1779) and his son David (1743-1807). David Roentgen was the first German with production outside of France to be admitted into the Paris furniture makers’ guild. This occurred only after he became ébéniste-mécanicien first to Queen Marie Antoinette and then to her husband King Louis XVI.
I believe that I was first aware of the furniture of the Roentgens when I was a child and shown a piece in our gallery. Why would a child be interested, you ask? The answer is quite simple, the furniture, as Goethe observed, does all sorts of tricks. The ingenuity behind the work of this father and son team knew no limits.
I have seen many furniture exhibitions and even for me, they can be a crashing bore but now the Metropolitan has done an exhibition of Roentgen furniture, which one can only describe as fun. It is aptly called “Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens”. Not only is the furniture exciting to look at with its elaborate marquetry but the exhibition uses the technology available today so that we can see the furniture doing all of its tricks.
At the entrance to the exhibition there is a wall size video showing two pieces from the Met’s collection, a gaming table revealing all of its different game boards and a desk which with the turn of a key has many drawers pop open. The video also shows an automaton of Marie Antoinette playing the clavichord. She first looks at the audience and then strikes the keys with tiny mallets. She is wearing real clothes but in the video they have taken off her billowing skirt exposing a pair of shapely legs, so that Marie Antoinette looks like a barroom pianist from the Wild West. It is unusual to see a sexy Marie Antoinette and so the fun begins.
There is then a small wall of portraits of the Roentgen family. Although as paintings they are not very interesting they do give the family a personal presence in the galleries. Turn around and you see a tabernacle rotating on a turntable. Somehow you believe for a moment it has always been so, of course, originally it was turned in the church depending on which liturgical service was being performed. The first niche originally held a Monstrance, the second a small Altar Cross and the third a Ciborium. The latter was in the niche with a marquetry (ebony, rosewood, mother of pearl, and tortoise shell) depiction of The Last Supper taking place in the center of a very ornate apse.
The afore mentioned automaton of Marie Antoinette which is said to bear a fair likeness to the Queen was made by David Roentgen and sent under the greatest secrecy to Louis XVI. It arrived as a surprise at the court of Versailles. No one who must have participated in such a difficult endeavor like the clock making workshops of Neuwied, Germany where the Roentgens lived and worked had leaked the story. Automatons were considered the ultimate in scientific success and for, a foreign furniture maker to pull one off must have been the marketing coup of the age. It was so highly prized by all that it survived the Revolution and today resides in the Conservatoire des arts et métiers in Paris.
My final illustration comes near the end of the show. Nearly identical commodes, one from the Met and the other from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London are placed next to each other. The back has been taken off of the latter revealing its counter weights which enable the turn of a key in the frieze of the commode to open a door with a compartment attached behind which are three shallow drawers.
The concept for the show and curator of the exhibition is Wolfram Koeppe from the Metropolitan Museum. He has been a wonderful interpreter for the public and using either the objects themselves or video has shown all the incredible feats that the Roentgens’ furniture can do.