“Anyone who has seen one of Rontgen’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… can imagine how that palace unfolded, into which my sweet companion now drew me.”
Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, 1821
For a furniture nerd like me, it is almost overwhelming to visit a furniture exhibition on a Sunday and have to face a crowd. At the Met, the spectacular Roentgen exhibition (Extravagant Inventions – The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens) is attracting a lot of people as the pieces exhibited are vibrant masterpieces. Subtle they are not. They are true tours-de-force of cabinet-making and mechanical achievement created in a context of an open European trade and diplomacy.
In his early life Abraham Roentgen traveled through England and Holland, travels which clearly influenced his work that developed into highly elaborate technical pieces with superb pictorial marquetry but that lacked the elegance of design of their French counterparts.
His son David continued to improve the technical side of the workshop but as a clever businessman invested in selling the Roentgen brand around Europe at the same time that embraced the more understated neoclassicism in vogue in Paris.
While David was in charge, they have become the most famous cabinet-makers in Europe, selling spectacular pieces to Empress Catherine, Louis XVI and Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia. Nevertheless, the mounts – and somehow the design – in the majority of the pieces, lack the refinement of their outstanding mechanisms.
As a first ever major retrospective exhibition of this father-son partnership, I doubt that we will ever have the opportunity to see for several generations, in the same place, so many of their creations, many flown over from the European museums, the heirs of the royal and imperial collections of Berlin, Paris and Saint Petersburg. Not to be missed.