Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Extravagant Monstrosities: Gold- and Silversmith Designs in the Auricular Style

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  • One of the most curious styles to become fashionable in early seventeenth-century gold- and silversmith work is the so-called Auricular Style (63.601.10[7]). The name derives from the style's characteristic idiom of organic fluid lines, shapes, and smooth surfaces, often reminiscent of cartilage and, in particular, the curvature of the ear. At first glance, the basic structure of artworks executed in the Auricular Style gives the impression of an object that has come out of its mold unsuccessfully. When studied more closely, however, the various forms and creatures that emerge from the solidified, organic mass—masks, (parts of) human figures and animals, including ray fish, slugs, and dragons—form convincing evidence of exactly the opposite. In fact, in most cases, the objects were not made by casting at all. They were fashioned, instead, from a smooth (silver) plate that was meticulously worked into intricate compositions using a hammer and chisels.


    Many of the sometimes eerie qualities of the Auricular Style had already emerged in the arts of the previous century.

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    Early Precedents and the Auricular Vocabulary

    Many of the sometimes eerie qualities of the Auricular Style had already emerged in the arts of the previous century. References to the monstrous world of invertebrates and reptiles were a recurrent phenomenon in the ceramic creations of the workshop of Bernard Palissy (1510–1590) (1975.1.1620); the Flemish grotesque designs of Cornelis Floris II (before 1514–1575) (59.642.32) and Cornelis Bos (ca. 1510?–before 1566); and the artificial grottoes that adorned the gardens and houses of rich Italian families (1999.63). The flowing, organic base structure of the designs is reflected in vessels made from natural stones (17.190.536) and other luxury objects fashioned from exotic objects such as shells and pearls (1982.60.378).


    The Auricular Style that emerged in the early seventeenth century went through its own distinct development, however, and—although used for various types of objects, including picture frames and gilt leather wallpaper—was connected in particular to the Dutch silver- and goldsmith trade (27.23.38). The great popularity of the style is usually explained by the Renaissance curiosity for the natural world, and the emergence of scientific research. The organic shapes, in particular, suggest that anatomical study and dissection played a significant part in the development of the characteristic idiom of the Auricular Style. Similar to anatomical abnormalities and exotic animals and objects, the appeal of these pieces therefore also lay in their role as objects of wonder, made for the elite to marvel at like many other treasures found in a so-called Kunst- und Wunderkammer (17.190.622a,b).


    Protagonists

    The intricacy of the elegantly flowing lines and shapes of Auricular designs makes it difficult to imagine how artists were able to realize them so perfectly out of precious metals. Because it required great skill to produce these pieces, the gold- and silversmiths who mastered the technique rose to great fame.


    Paulus Willemsz. van Vianen (ca. 1570–ca. 1613/14) (69.554.6) is generally credited with the invention of the style. Paulus, who learned his craft in the Netherlands, afterward traveled to France, Germany, and Italy, where he found inspiration for his works. He was celebrated as a gold- and silversmith throughout Europe and spent most of his career working at the courts of Munich and Prague, where he created numerous vessels after his own designs (2000.581). His older brother Adam (ca. 1568/69–1627) (27.23.48), who remained in Utrecht throughout his career, also designed and executed many silver and gold vessels and platters in the Auricular Style. Particularly noteworthy is the cup he designed in 1614 for the Amsterdam guild of silversmiths in commemoration of his famous brother, who had recently died in Prague. The piece (now in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam) was well known and admired by painters in the circles of Pieter Lastman (1583–1633) and his famous pupil Rembrandt (1606–1669), both of whom reproduced it in their paintings. Rembrandt's pupil, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621–1674), for example, casually placed it on the table in his painting Isaac Blessing Jacob (25.110.16).


    Van den Eeckhout's interest was more than casual, however, as he himself can be considered one of the most prominent protagonists of the Auricular Style. He was trained as a painter but, as the son of an Amsterdam goldsmith, he seems to have possessed a natural inclination toward this type of design. Although he did not realize any pieces himself, he supplied numerous designs in the style, which were sold as prints by the Amsterdam publisher Clement de Jonghe (1624/25–1677) (32.123.32[1]).


    Along with the van Vianen family, another goldsmith dynasty is strongly linked to the Auricular Style. Most prominent among this family was the Amsterdam-based silver- and goldsmith Johannes Lutma the Elder (1584–1669) (20.46.18). In an etching of 1656, Rembrandt depicts the famous artist dozing in a chair while holding a candlestick in his hand. Among the objects on the table nearby are a hammer and set of chisels, the tools of his trade, and a small silver bowl in the Auricular Style.


    The identification of van Vianen, van den Eeckhout, and Lutma with the Auricular Style was so strong that works of art displaying similar designs were often directly associated with one of them. An example is a portrait of Godert Dircksz. Kerckrinck (2013.560) by Jan Thopas (1625/27–before 1695), which carries an old inscription incorrectly attributing the lobed cartouche to Lutma.

    A Second Blossoming in Print

    Although a relatively large number of silver objects in the Auricular Style survive, a great many more designs are known because they were spread through prints, initially produced by descendants of the great masters. One of the earliest print series with Dutch Auricular designs was published by Christiaen van Vianen (ca. 1598–1671). Under the alluring title Artful Models of Various Silver Vases and Other Capricious Works, he presented the ingenuity and breadth of his father's designs to the world (27.23.43; 27.23.57). Jacob Lutma (ca. 1624–1654), son of Johannes Lutma the Elder, soon followed suit with a series celebrating the works of his father (63.601.10[4]). The great appeal of these works inspired print publishers to compile other series of Auricular designs. Cornelis Danckertsz. I (ca. 1603–1656), for example, combined designs by all the great protagonists of the style in one series entitled Various Artful Inventions to be Applied in Gold, Silver, Wood, and Stone (56.500.10[10]; 56.500.10[2]). Although the print run for most of these series seems to have been limited, the multilingual title pages suggest that they were meant to be distributed throughout the European continent. Christiaen van Vianen chose to print his titles in Italian, French, and Dutch, all of which he economically placed on the same page. In contrast, the Amsterdam publisher Clement de Jonghe decided it was worth his while to produce three individual title pages for the series of Auricular cartouches by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout. Although the Museum's example contains all three, most other existing copies of the series suggest that only one of the title pages, in Dutch, French, or Latin (32.123.32[2]), would be chosen to accompany the designs, depending on the intended customer(s).


    The publication of Auricular designs did not occur when the style first emerged in the early seventeenth century, but rather in the late 1640s and 1650s, toward, or in some cases even well after, the end of the artists' careers. This is generally thought to have something to do with the protection of artistic and intellectual property. At the same time, however, it also proved very beneficial to the descendants and followers of Paulus and Adam van Vianen and Johannes Lutma the Elder, as the publication of the designs in prints spurred a renewed interest and demand for designs in this style which they gladly provided.

    Femke Speelberg
    Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art