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First exhibition on the work of eighteenth-century court goldsmith opens at the Frick Collection
Johann Christian Neuber (1736–1808), Oval box decorated on the top with a hard stone medallion featuring a relief of fruit, and on the bottom a Meissen porcelain plaque (view of top), Dresden, c. 1775–80. L: 3½ inches, W: 2 inches, H: 1 1/3 inches. Private collection. Photo: © Éditions Monelle Hayot /photo Thomas Hennocque.

NEW YORK, NY.- Johann Christian Neuber (1736–1808) was one of Dresden’s most famous goldsmiths. Sometime before 1775 he was named court jeweler to Friedrich Augustus III, elector of Saxony, and in 1785 he was appointed curator of the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault), the magnificent royal collection of Augustus the Strong, the founder of the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory. A travel book published in 1782 that listed Dresden’s notable sights praised Neuber’s “extraordinary dexterity,” noting that “his pieces worked in mosaic are especially admired by all connoisseurs.” For more than thirty years, Neuber created small gold boxes, chatelaines, and watchcases decorated with local semiprecious stones such as agate, jasper, and carnelian. He fashioned enchanting landscapes, elaborate floral designs, and complex geometric patterns using cut stones, often incorporating Meissen porcelain plaques, cameos, and miniatures into his pieces. These one-of-a-kind objects, which reflect the Saxon court’s interest in both luxury items and the natural sciences, remain prized treasures today, but have never before been shown together in a monographic exhibition. Gold, Jasper, and Carnelian: Johann Christian Neuber at the Saxon Court will offer visitors to the Frick the first comprehensive introduction to this master craftsman’s oeuvre by highlighting approximately thirty-five boxes and other objects from the Grünes Gewölbe of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum, and private collections in Europe and the United States. Included in the exhibition will be several quartz specimens from the American Museum of Natural History to illustrate the raw materials used by Neuber in his work. The exhibition is on view this spring and summer in the Frick’s Oval Room, and will be accompanied by a publication and related public programs.

Comments Frick Director Ian Wardropper, “These unique and inventive objects were treasured in the eighteenth century, but, remarkably, have never before been shown together. European and American audiences have had much more exposure to exhibitions relating to commissions by the contemporary French court. We are delighted to introduce our visitors the oeuvre of this ingenious artisan through the upcoming exhibition, which together with our current Portico Gallery show, White Gold: Highlights from the Arnhold Collection of Meissen Porcelain, will offer them a sense of the important contributions made by those at work for the Saxon court at Dresden. And, I am pleased to announce that the Meissen porcelain exhibition will now be extended through January 6, 2013.

Gold, Jasper, and Carnelian: Johann Christian Neuber at the Saxon Court is co organized by Grünes Gewölbe, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, The Frick Collection, and Galerie J. Kugel, Paris. The exhibition’s presentation at The Frick Collection is coordinated by Director Ian Wardropper and Charlotte Vignon, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts. Support for the New York presentation has been generously provided by Walter and Vera Eberstadt, Aso O. Tavitian, Margot and Jerry Bogert, and an anonymous donor.

Johann Christian Neuber was born in 1736 in the town of Neuwernsdorf in Saxony and at the age of sixteen registered as an apprentice in the Dresden workshop of goldsmith Johann Friedrich Tectaon, where he remained for six years. In 1762 he became a master of the Dresden guild of goldsmiths and, around 1775, the official jeweler of the Saxon court. One example is a small oval box decorated on all sides with landscapes, an excellent early example of Neuber’s extraordinary skill. Using tiny pieces of cut stones, he crafted a complex mosaic depicting elaborate scenes of pastoral life: on the lid, a couple accompanied by their dog sit under a tree with individual leaves made of green jasper. An antique ruin and a village with a castle on top of a hill can be seen in the distance, while the decorations on the box’s sides include a shepherdess tending her sheep. Such virtuosity is extremely rare, even for a master such as Neuber. More characteristic, but equally exquisite, are Neuber’s boxes decorated with colorful flowers. In another example, Neuber used yellow, orange, and red jasper for the tulips; lapis lazuli for the forget-me-nots; amethyst for the irises; white agate for the gardenias; carnelian for the primroses; and various shades of green jasper for the leaves. This mosaic is inlaid into a background of burnished gold, which gives the box a particularly luxurious appearance.

During the 1770s and 1780s, Neuber’s naturalistic designs evolved into a more classical style, in another example, decorated with a diamond pattern. A bouquet of flowers composed of a variety of hard stones appears against a background of burnished gold. By pushing a concealed button, the central medallion on the lid opens, originally revealing a hidden miniature (now lost). Such miniatures, usually a portrait of a loved one, occasionally appear on the lids of Neuber’s boxes, as seen in another example decorated with a geometric pattern of cut-agate stones. These boxes show that Neuber, who rarely repeated a design, experimented with a variety of techniques to create an astonishing range of objects.

In 1786 Neuber advertised in the Journal des Luxus und der Mode of Leipzig, an influential monthly magazine that reported trends of German cultural life: “M. Neuber, jeweler to the court of the Elector of Dresden, has invented a very nice way to make buttons that are likely to be imitated in Paris. As incredible as it seems, in fashion, Germany could offer a model for this great capital.” The advertisement continued: “An older invention of this clever artist, still largely unknown, is a kind of snuffbox made of gold and all kinds of precious stones from Saxony, known as Steinkabinettabatiere [literally ‘stone cabinet snuffbox’]. The stones are numbered and none appears twice, while a small booklet that accompanies the box provides their scientific names. Thus, luxury, taste, and science are brought together in this fashionable object of jewelry, which makes them desirable for every wealthy amateur.”

The exhibition presents twelve steinkabinetts, several of which will be displayed with their original booklets. Certainly the most characteristic works by Neuber, the steinkabinetts earned him a great deal of recognition. For many years, they were considered to perfectly reflect the wealth and refinement of Saxony, simultaneously representing both the beauty of nature and the scientific spirit of the Enlightenment. The boxes’ success led Neuber to seek his own source for the stones and, in 1775, Friedrich Augustus III awarded him the concession of a mine near Schlottwitz, south of Dresden, a region famous for the diversity and superior quality of its rocks.

In addition to the steinkabinetts, the exhibition features Neuber’s masterpiece, the Breteuil Table. This small 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 and for the remarkable skill of its creator, but also for its prestigious history. It was presented in 1781 by Friedrich Augustus III to Baron de Breteuil, a French diplomat, as recognition for the role he played in the negotiation of the Treaty of Teschen. This agreement officially ended the war of Bavarian Succession fought between the Habsburg monarchy and a Saxon-Prussian alliance to prevent the Habsburg acquisition of the Duchy of Bavaria. The table has a mosaic top inlaid with 128 semiprecious stones 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 who received it nearly 250 years ago, this stunning object has almost never been exhibited outside the Château de Breteuil (some twenty-five miles west of Paris) and has never before crossed the Atlantic. For the table’s design, Neuber employed his concept for his steinkabinetts, but enlarged the size of the stones nearly ten times. As he did with the boxes, he compiled a manuscript to document the name of each stone he used and the location where it was quarried. Since its creation, the table has been widely admired and has contributed to Neuber’s international recognition. In Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, the table served as the inspiration for “the famous mosaic table” owned by the princess of Iéna.

The Frick exhibition also includes two bases designed and crafted by Neuber for the display of Meissen porcelain groups. One base is now in the collection of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, while the other is from a private collection in Paris. These bases were part of a much larger diplomatic gift from Friedrich Augustus III to Nicolai Wasilijewitsch Repnin, the Russian emissary involved in the negotiation of the Treaty of Teschen. The gift originally included a Meissen porcelain service of several hundred pieces and an enormous centerpiece composed of seven bases of varying heights, each supporting an allegorical group made of Meissen porcelain. Of the seven bases, only these two have been definitively identified. Preparatory drawings for the bases recently uncovered in the archives of the Royal Meissen Porcelain Manufactory made possible their attribution to Neuber and clarified their original function and provenance. Subsequent research has identified the corresponding Meissen groups created for them, both of which are now part of the Porcelain Collection of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

The bases and their groups will be reunited for the Frick’s exhibition, the first time in nearly a hundred years that they will be displayed together.

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