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Magnificent 18th-century furniture by Abraham and David Roentgen on view at Metropolitan Museum
David Roentgen (German, 1743-1807), Commode, Ca. 1775-79 (with later alterations). Oak, pine, walnut, mahogany, and cherry, veneered with hornbeam (partially stained), tulipwood, walnut, holly and maple (both partially stained), boxwood, mahogany, and other woods; red brocatelle marble; gilt bronze, iron, steel, and brass, 35 ¼ in. x 53 ½ in. x 27 ¼ in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982.

NEW YORK, NY.- Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens, on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 27, 2013, is the first comprehensive survey of the Roentgen family’s cabinetmaking firm from 1742 to its closing in the early 1800s. Some 60 pieces of exquisite furniture, many of which have never before been lent outside Europe, and several clocks are complemented by paintings, including portraits of the Roentgen family, and prints that depict the masterpieces of furniture in contemporary interiors. It is the first exhibition in America devoted to the creative ability of the Roentgens to exploit the natural characteristics of a variety of woods and other precious materials, transforming them into furniture of compelling artistic and historic significance.

The meteoric rise of the workshop of Abraham Roentgen (1711-93) and his son David (1743-1807) is the most spectacular chapter in the history of innovative 18th–century Continental furniture-making. Their original designs, combined with their use of intriguing mechanical devices, revolutionized traditional French and English furniture types. The resulting objects are magnificent and ingenious. At the turn of a key, many of them literally unfold to reveal hidden compartments, secret drawers, and mechanical and musical devices. The hallmark Roentgen style is characterized by grandeur, inventiveness, and meticulously detailed shapes. From its base in Germany, the workshop served an international clientele and the Roentgens utilized a sophisticated business model, which included intensive research on potential patrons’ personal tastes and forward-looking marketing and production techniques. “Neuwied Furniture,” as it was known, was sought after by rulers throughout Europe, from King Frederick William II of Prussia and Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of France to Empress Catherine the Great of Russia.

In 1742 Abraham Roentgen opened a cabinetmaker's workshop in the tiny village of Herrnhaag, in the Wetterau region near Frankfurt am Main. With only one journeyman on staff, the firm was concerned principally with the production of furniture for daily use. Abraham distinguished himself by adhering to the highest standards of quality, and soon he was producing veneered show-off pieces in the English Queen Anne style, which he had learned during his years as a journeyman in the Netherlands and England. The local nobility recognized the furnishings’ unusual appearance and quality. Abraham's progressive designs and types, such as his fashionable tea chest and multi-functional table, were novelties in Germany and were an immediate success. Following his move to Neuwied-at-the-Rhine in 1750, Abraham took his innovative designs even further by adapting elegant French-inspired outlines that, combined with superb marquetry, fine carving, intricate gilded bronze mounts, and multiple mechanical devices, came to be recognized by contemporaries as hallmarks of the Roentgen brand. Roentgen's playful and perfectly executed inventions became a favored status symbol in princely interiors throughout Europe.

Abraham’s son, David Roentgen, quickly moved beyond his apprenticeship in his father’s workshop and gradually took over the enterprise between 1765 and 1768. He perfected the sophisticated structure and intricate marquetry designs of the furniture, and was appointed Ebéniste-Méchanicien du Roi et de la Reine at the court of Queen Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI at Versailles in 1779. Having conquered the Western market, David revised his designs and reinvented his product line’s appearance as he looked eastward. Focusing on his new target, the Imperial residences of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, David Roentgen developed specific models catering to Russian tastes. He caught the fancy of the Empress herself with his Apollo Desk (1783-84), which depicted her favorite dog as a gilded mount, and which David produced on pure speculation. Catherine the Great could not resist and paid a huge sum for the piece, then ordered many others, becoming Roentgen’s most important client. Catherine’s largesse was unprecedented and the news spread throughout Europe. By 1789 Catherine and the Russian nobility had bought hundreds of pieces of Roentgen furniture.

Abraham and David Roentgen's story is a tale of international success, fame, luxury, and high honor, but in the case of David it is also the tragedy of a deeply pious man who struggled to balance his ambitions and his glorious achievements with the regulations of his religious community, the Moravian brotherhood. At the pinnacle of David's career, the workshop employed nearly 200 specialists and the annual revenues over several years equaled those of the famous Meissen porcelain factory. His fortune shifted dramatically with the progress of the French Revolution, as Europe's nobility struggled to stay afloat, and the market for luxurious furnishings collapsed.

Extravagant Inventions features outstanding pieces of Roentgen furniture, many from distinguished international museums and royal collections, as well as six works from the Metropolitan Museum’s own holdings, and two that are on long-term loan to the Museum. Highlights of the exhibition include an extraordinary Writing Desk (ca. 1758-62) from the Rijksmuseum that was designed by Abraham Roentgen and is considered to be one of the finest creations of his workshop; a monumental Rotating Tabernacle (ca. 1758); an Automaton of Queen Marie Antoinette (ca. 1782-84), a likeness of the queen seated at a dulcimer that still functions; and six intriguing objects 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 most complicated mechanical devices in the exhibition are illustrated through video and virtual animations. Additionally, working drawings and portraits of the cabinetmakers, their family, and important patrons—as well as a series of documents owned by the Metropolitan Museum that originated at the Roentgen estate—underline the long-overlooked significance and legacy of the Roentgens as Continental Europe’s principal cabinetmakers of the ancien régime.

Extravagant Inventions is organized by Wolfram Koeppe, the Marina Kellen French Curator in the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts.

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