Geneva Anderson digs into art

ARThound in New York: A Dresden goldsmith and court jeweler works his magic and catalogues it in small booklets—“Gold, Jasper and Carnelian” at The Frick Collection through August 19, 2012

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I can’t resist the allure of miniature boxes or precious stones, so much so that I spent my stopover in New York (en route to the Olympics) visiting the Frick Collection.  It currently has an eye-stopping exhibition of gemstone snuffboxes, buttons, bonbonnières (candy boxes) and an astonishing oval table, all so masterfully inlaid with stones they appear to be painted.  The artist is the famed-in-his-day German goldsmith and mineralogist, Johann Christian Neuber (1736-1808), court jeweler to Friedrich Augustus III, elector of Saxony and curator of the “Grünes Gewölbe” (Green Vault), the magnificent royal treasure collection of Augustus the Strong, the founder of the Meissen Porcelain Factory.

Gold, Jasper, and Car­nelian: Johann Chris­t­ian Neu­ber at the Saxon Court,” which runs through August 19, 2012, in the Frick Collection’s Oval Room, is the first exhibition ever devoted to Neuber’s work.  The show includes 43 of Neuber’s intricately worked wonders and the prized Breteuil table (1736-1808), one of the masterpieces of 18th century furniture, which has been in the baron’s family for over 250 years and has never before crossed the Atlantic.

Neuber rarely revisited a composition and, for over thirty years, he created small gold boxes and luxury objects that were inlaid with semiprecious stones fashioned into landscapes, floral designs, complex geometric patterns, often incorporating Meissen porcelain plaques, cameos and miniatures.  His objects perfectly reflect the eighteenth-century European interest in luxury and items and the natural sciences.  The show, laid out in several vitrines allowing for 360 degree viewing, gives an excellent overview of his work from his early boxes with intricate naturalistic scenes in mosaics to his later boxes which evolved into a more classical style.  It also includes several quartz specimens from the American Museum of Natural History to illustrate to raw materials Neuber used.  The exhibition was jointly organized by the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) museum in Dresden (where it was seen earlier this year), the Frick, and Galerie J. Kugel in Paris (its third and final destination).  Charlotte Vignon, associate curator of decorative arts, along with Ian Wardropper, the museum’s director oversaw The Frick’s presentation.

The small oval Breteuil table, in pristine condition, is a veritable collage of color— its mosaic top consists of one-hundred-and-twenty-eight gem­stones and incorporates five Meissen porcelain plaques of mythological scenes symbolizing peace, circles of imitation pearls (created from rock crystal and silver dust), and decorative swags and wreaths of bas-relief gemstones.  The legs are embellished with a combination of petrified wood, amethyst, cabochon carnelian and diamond-cut rock crystal, gilt and more imitation pearls.   The table 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 detail in the table is breathtaking.

Neuber had a penchant for informing his royal patrons of exactly what they were looking at when beholding his masterpieces.  He created charming small booklets with painstakingly accurate identification lists of the gemstones he used, their placements, and where he sourced them. Just examining the table and pouring over his manuscript (which is enlarged for viewing ease) can fill a chunk of time.

The exhibition presents twelve steinkabinetts (stone cabinet snuffboxes) which are his most characteristic works. Depicting both the beauty of nature and the scientific spirit of the Enlightenment, these intricately crafted boxes brought Neuber a great deal of recognition.  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, giving him a permanent source for fine materials.

Two of his Steinkabinetts on display are made of gold and Saxon gemstones and have numbers delicately engraved on their gold rims that correspond with entries in accompanying booklets that describe the featured stones. Much beloved by Friedrich Augustus III, Neuber’s snuffboxes were often created to be used as diplomatic gifts. Easily recognizable by their portrait of the Elector of Saxony on the lid, such royal presents are today quite rare.

Neuber was also skilled at self promotion:  In 1786, he placed the following advertisement in the Journal des Luxus und der Moden of Leipzig, an influential monthly magazine that reported trends in German cultural life: “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 [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 it desirable for every wealthy collector.”

There is an iPad app that accompanies the exhibition and allows an inti­mate view of the Bre­teuil table top.  Click here to participate in virtual tour of the exhibition.

More about The Frick Collection:  The Frick Collection showcases the fortune in artworks amassed by American industrial magnate, financier, and art patron Henry Frick Clay in the 19th century in a stunning neoclassical mansion at Fifth Avenue and 70 Streets.  In 1910, Frick purchased the property, which equaled an entire city block, and told his friends that he was building a home to “make Carnegie’s place look like a miner’s shack.”  Architect Thomas Carrere of Carrere and Hastings (who also built the New York Public Library’s headquarters, midtown), designed and built the mansion.  The collection includes the best of the best of European painting, spanning the Renaissance to the turn of the last century—two of its three Vermeer grace the front area and portraits by Gainsborough and Reynolds line the dining room walls, while Turner and Constable grace the library.  The five Piero della Francescas will stop you cold.   It also includes major works of sculpture, including one of the finest groups of small bronzes in the world, superb 18th century French furniture, and porcelains, Limoges enamels, Oriental rugs, and other artworks of remarkable quality, including a stunning collection of Meissen Porcelain from the Arnhold Collection.  Visit the Virtual Tour to see what is on display in the galleries. If a work of art is on display the entry says “Currently on View.”


THE COURTAULD GALLERY (October 2, 2012, through January 27, 2013)

In keeping with its tradition of exhibiting masterworks from collections outside of New York, the Frick will present fifty-eight drawings this fall from The Courtauld Gallery, London. This exhibition marks the first time that so many of the principal drawings from The Courtauld’s prized collection have been made available for loan. The prized sheets represent a survey of the extraordinary draftsmanship of Italian, Dutch, Flemish, German, Spanish, British, and French artists active during the late Middle Ages through the early twentieth century.  Among the artists in the Frick’s exhibition will be Andrea Mantegna, Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Michelangelo, Peter Paul Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Rembrandt, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Charles-Joseph Natoire, Thomas Gainsborough, Francisco Goya y Lucientes, J.M.W. Turner, Théodore Géricault, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso.

Details:  Gold, Jasper, and Car­nelian: Johann Chris­t­ian Neu­ber at the Saxon Court runs through August 19, 2012.  The Frick Collection is located at 1 East 70th Street (between Madison and Fifth Avenues), New York, NY 10021. The Collection is open 6 days a week:  Tuesday-Saturday: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays: 11 to 5.  Admission is $18 adults; $15 seniors and $10 students and includes acoustiguide audio tour. On Sundays, pay what you wish, 11a.m. to 1 p.m.  For more information visit

The Frick Museum also has a book and gift shop that is well-stocked with upscale novelties, art books and scholarly materials.

Highly recommended: an 11 minute film produced and directed by award-winning filmmaker Christopher Noey, shown in the Music Room every 20 minutes, beginning at 10:20 a.m., with final showing at 5 p.m.  Narrated by members of the Frick’s senior staff, it tells the amazing story of Mr. Frick, his home, and his art collection.

July 24, 2012 - Posted by | Art | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] ARThound’s most recent coverage of the Frick Collection— ARThound in New York: A Dresden goldsmith and court jeweler works his magic and catalogues it in sma… […]

    Pingback by Finally! The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco announces a New Director, Colin Bailey, from the Frick Collection « ART hound | March 28, 2013 | Reply

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