Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Abraham and David Roentgen

Abraham Roentgen (1711–1793) and his son David (1743–1807) were the most successful cabinetmakers in Continental Europe in the eighteenth century. The halcyon days of their workshop marked the end of the ancien régime, when grand works of art—among them some of the finest achievements in furniture making—underscored the might of sovereigns, aristocrats, and affluent patricians.

From its humble beginnings in 1742 to its closing about 1800, the Roentgen firm pioneered advancements in superb marquetry, innovative designs, visionary production methods, and forward-thinking marketing strategies. The resulting objects were 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. “Neuwied Furniture,” as it was known, was sought 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.

Abraham Roentgen left Germany as a journeyman about 1731 and settled briefly in Holland before moving to London. There the cabinetmaker observed the aristocracy and the newly moneyed nobility of the burgeoning metropolis, but his resulting success led him astray. In 1737, in an attempt to change his profligate ways, he joined the Moravian Brethren—a religious community also called the Herrnhuter Brotherhood—an offshoot of Pietism that was strictly organized according to Christ’s teachings. Their day-to-day lives were based on the concepts of brotherly love, mutual respect, and work for the common good rather than for personal gain. The Herrnhuter maintained trading and financial networks in various professions that helped to finance the community’s missionaries, and also established international commercial connections, which was quite unusual for the eighteenth century.

Abraham was on his way to North Carolina as a missionary, but before crossing the Atlantic his ship encountered pirates. It managed to reach the Irish harbor of Galway, and after being stranded there for weeks Abraham was reunited in the Netherlands with his young wife, Susanna. They moved to Herrnhaag, near Frankfurt, where Abraham opened a workshop in 1742. The local nobility quickly recognized the quality of his furniture, particularly his progressive designs and forms. About 1750, after the Herrnhuter were expelled from Herrnhaag, the Count of Neuwied invited them to settle in his dominion to strengthen the local economy. He granted them religious freedom, partial exemption from local taxes, and unrestricted employment free from guild regulations (which traditionally limited the number of employees allotted to each workshop’s master); this freedom encouraged entrepreneurial aspirations (MS_44, David Roentgen documents in Watson Library). Abraham’s workshop flourished, and he took his innovative designs even further, adapting elegant French-inspired outlines combined with superb marquetry, intricate gilt-bronze mounts, and advanced mechanical devices (1999.147). Roentgen’s perfectly executed inventions became a status symbol for princely interiors all over Germany and Central Europe.

Even though he was a Moravian and, in general, the nobility living in Catholic regions of the Holy Roman Empire hired only artisans of their own faith, Abraham attracted Catholic clients of international importance, underscoring his impeccable reputation. Count Johann Philipp von Walderdorff (1701–1768) was one such client. From 1756 to 1768, he was archbishop and elector of Trier, ruling some 200,000 subjects. In 1763, he also became prince-bishop of Worms, reigning over two ecclesiastical lands along the middle Rhine (MS_44, David Roentgen documents in Watson Library). Both regions were part of the centuries-old system of independent territories that formed the Holy Roman Empire—a loose political unit that was on the brink of becoming the modern nations that evolved after the French Revolution. As a true Baroque ruler, Walderdorff favored every form of luxury and supported all the arts. He owned at least two dozen Roentgen pieces, including a pair of sofas and a multifunctional table (Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, W-1979,93).

Central Europe was in chaos during the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), but Walderdorff and other affluent clients continued to buy from the Roentgens, who kept producing furniture, though at a loss. The firm badly needed an injection of capital to acquire new materials, advanced equipment, and additional personnel. Father and son traveled to London in 1765 to investigate the possibility of relocating their workshop there; the voyage exposed them to new ideas, particularly Neoclassicism in the style of Robert Adam. The Neuwied Brethren were shocked by David’s ambitious plans and expenditures, and his boldness resulted in his exclusion about 1767.

The company’s inventory of soon-to-be-outmoded pieces forced David to explore an aggressive business approach. Although it was doubtless against his faith, he broached the idea of a furniture lottery, knowing the aristocracy’s love of gambling and believing that Neuwieder Arbeit—by this time a luxury brand—would entice those who wanted to remain not just à la mode but à la mode Roentgen. The idea was not new; by the eighteenth century, some furniture makers actually preferred lotteries as the way to sell their goods. David made an unprecedented, heavily publicized tour, traveling with important pieces to major German cities. His efforts were a success. In the Hamburg lottery of 1769, all tickets were sold for roughly eighteen guilders each—the equivalent of six weeks’ pay for journeyman artisans. The first prize was a desk with cabinet, decorated with chinoiserie figures in superb marquetry and featuring a clock with a carillon (musical mechanism) and a hidden clavichord.

David Roentgen’s success was due in part to the extraordinary confidence with which he approached the greatest rulers of his time. In August 1774, Roentgen went to Paris, where he absorbed the latest artistic trends and established contacts among the artists and craftsmen who were serving some of the most demanding clients. On the way, he probably stopped in Brussels, where he met the man who was to become his principal patron during this period: Charles Alexander, duke of Lorraine (1712–1780), an uncle of Marie Antoinette. In the mid-1770s, the duke purchased entire ensembles of Roentgen furnishings, including a clock (1975.101) and two unique monumental marquetry wall panels (tapisseries en bois) for his palace in Brussels. There they surrounded the fabulously expensive secretary cabinet he purchased in 1776.

Given his ties to the French queen, Charles was no doubt a helpful reference when, in late 1778, Roentgen arrived in Paris with an even grander version of the Brussels secretary cabinet. The royal couple purchased it for 80,000 livres—the largest amount ever paid by the royal household for a single piece of furniture—bringing Roentgen instant fame. Louis XVI’s passion for French clocks and all mechanical devices traditionally has been cited as the reason he was willing to pay such an astronomical price. It was, in fact, Marie Antoinette who enticed her husband to buy the cabinet for her as a gift. She had a miniature with her portrait set into an allegorical marquetry panel to replace the original middle portion of the superstructure. Such substitutions indicate that Roentgen clearly recognized that helping a buyer to identify personally with a customized showpiece was a way to promote a sale. Louis XVI bought additional furniture from Roentgen (1982.60.81), and his courtiers rushed to send for “Neuwied work” in order to have their own furniture in the latest fashion, leading Roentgen to open a shop in Paris, called “À la Ville de Neuwied” (2007.42.1,2). Among Roentgen’s most popular designs were the rolltop writing desk (41.82; 58.75.55) and the portable oval writing table (58.75.39), which became trademark models of the Roentgen workshop.

In 1779, the last and most elaborate of the three large secretary cabinets arrived in Berlin, where the heir presumptive, Frederick William (crowned King Frederick William II in late summer 1786), bought it for a fabulous sum, making only a partial payment and thereby placing himself in debt to the manufactory for years to come. With such a royal “entertainment system,” the Neuwied artisans perfected the practice of colored marquetry (Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 1904,54) with their depiction of the Liberal Arts as well as ingenious mechanisms and precise timepieces. The Berlin secretary cabinet represents possibly not only the greatest achievement of the Roentgen workshop, but is also the most expensive piece of furniture ever made (Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, O-1962,24).

After his success in western Europe, David Roentgen looked to the east, specifically into the personal taste of Empress Catherine II. Knowing her humanistic ambitions, he created a desk for her in a “new style,” purely on speculation. A statue of the sun god Apollo on Mount Parnassus sits atop the Apollo desk, which has no marquetry. Sphinxes, an ancient symbol of female wisdom, flank the slanted front that opens to serve as a writing surface. The small dog before a bronze plaque shaped like an architectural facade functions as a knob to push the facade panel back into the body to gain access to hidden compartments. David was aware of the empress’ love of dogs and had this unique handle modeled as a portrait of Zémire, her favorite Italian greyhound. How could she resist?

The empress became Roentgen’s most important client, paying for the Apollo desk the asking price of 20,000 rubles—a price comparable to that of a country estate—and adding as a token of appreciation a gold snuffbox and an additional 5,000 rubles. This brilliant marketing ploy came at a time when artisans had to write endless reminders for payment to their noble clients (MS_44, David Roentgen documents in Watson Library). Catherine’s largesse was unparalleled, and the news spread through Europe. By 1789, she and the Russian nobility had bought hundreds of pieces of Roentgen furniture in the restrained Neoclassical style (48.73.1). Their fine-grained exotic mahogany or yellow wood (bois jaun, or Pau Amarello wood) and gilded bronze mounts reflect the harmonious interplay of ars et natura.

Abraham and David Roentgen’s story is a tale of international fame, luxury, and honor, but—in the case of David—it is also a tragedy about a deeply religious man who fought to balance his ambitions, his glorious achievements, and the restrictions of his religious community. His fortunes shifted dramatically with the French Revolution; as Europe’s nobility struggled to stay afloat, the market for luxurious furnishings collapsed. In 1793, the year Abraham died, a retiree in Herrnhut, the scope of the Neuwied workshop was reduced drastically. With French revolutionary troops in sight, David traveled to sell the remaining stock and collect outstanding payments. In 1791, the king of Prussia bestowed diplomatic status on the cabinetmaker and the title Privy Councillor of Prussia. By March 1801, David Roentgen closed his business books. He died a man of means on a diplomatic mission in Wiesbaden in 1807 (MS_44, David Roentgen documents in Watson Library).

Although he was German by birth and active in a German-speaking area, Roentgen became a truly European entrepreneur. His inventions and followers set the standard for the long-lasting influence of the Neuwied workshop on French, German, Scandinavian, English, and Russian Neoclassical furniture. To use the term “single-handedly” in the context of Roentgen furniture is a romantic misnomer. The Roentgens hired artisans from all over Europe who were the best in their professions or talented enough to be trained easily. This sophisticated employment of a team of craftsmen, each assigned a clear role, in a preindustrial environment anticipated manufacturing practices of the post–Industrial Revolution and beyond. The typical late combination of mahogany and gilded mounts came to be known as the “Jacob style” in Russia, after the French cabinetmaker Georges Jacob. Considering the actual influence and legacy of David Roentgen and his students, it should be renamed the “Roentgen style.”