Gold boxes, snuff boxes, small jewels don’t really do it for me. But when a genial craftsman translates it to a larger scale the result is the Breuteuil table, now showing at The Frick. Then, I get excited. The exhibit gathers around this extraordinary object 35 of the known 250 boxes made by Johann Christian Neuber (1732–1808), goldsmith to the Saxony court.
“Drawing on an established Saxon tradition of working in semi-precious stones, Neuber perfected and developed to its zenith the technique known as Zellenmosaic or cloisonné encrustation, making snuffboxes and galanteries not only refined in their taste but rich in the colours and patterns that only Saxon geology could afford. Alert to the rising taste, among the elite and the nobility of his age, for all ‘natural’ science and for mineralogy in particular, Neuber invented the Steinkabinettabatiere or snuffbox forming a mineralogical cabinet –miniature masterpieces combining, as he announced in his advertisment for their sale, «luxury, taste and science».”
I had seen the exhibition before but yesterday, at a seminar – with Ian Wardropper, Frick’s director, Charlotte Vignon, decorative arts curator, and George Harlow, American Museum of Natural History curator – I had the chance for a closer and in-depth look at the table and to learn about the stones.
A peculiar design – “a big box with legs”, as Mrs Vignon puts it – the Breuteuil table has nonetheless a truly fine gilt bronze frame with a sincere and simple neoclassical feel which is almost obliterated by the power of the coloured stones. A stunning thing.
Don’t miss the boxes as well, but what you need to know about the table is:
“A table entirely made by Johann Christian Neuber was presented in 1781 by Friedrich Augustus III to Louis Auguste de Breteuil, Baron de Breteuil (1730–1807), a French diplomat, as recognition for the role he had played in the negotiation of the Treaty of Teschen, which officially ended the War of Bavarian Succession. The Breteuil Table is regarded as one of the most extraordinary pieces of eighteenth-century furniture ever made, distinguished not only by the materials used in its construction but also for the remarkable skill of its creator.
The table has a mosaic top inlaid with 128 gemstones and decorated with five Meissen porcelain plaques depicting scenes that celebrate peace and the glory of the Baron de Breteuil. Still owned by the family that received it nearly 250 years ago, this stunning object has rarely been exhibited outside the Chateau de Breteuil (some twenty-five miles west of Paris) and has never before crossed the Atlantic. For the table’s design, Neuber enlarged a Steinkabinettabatiere (stone cabinet snuffbox) nearly ten times. As he did with the boxes, he compiled a written document of the stones he used.”