Discover ‘creative genius’ David Roentgen’s extraordinary 18th-century furniture
Csongor Kis, European Furniture & Works of Art specialist, shares why the cabinetmaker’s ormolu-mounted mahogany furnishings remain iconic
During the late 17th century cabinet-making in France developed into a recognized art form, thanks to supreme talents, such as Pierre Gole and André-Charles Boulle. David Roentgen may have hailed from Germany, but his ormolu-mounted mahogany masterpieces became an international sensation in the 18th century, pushing the craft to new heights. Roentgen’s furnishings can be found in the private collections of leading aesthetes from subsequent centuries, including the designers, Hubert de Givenchy and Karl Lagerfeld, as well as in esteemed institutional collections, such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Château of Versailles.
This spring four exceptional works by Roentgen will be offered in The Collector, a Christie’s online sale from 22 March-5 April: a cylinder bureau, jewel-like occasional tables, fall-front secrétaire, and a rare casket for letters.
‘Many people are drawn to Roentgen because his style represents a very clean, pure Neoclassicism, as opposed to the extravagant, fanciful Rococo style that came before,’ says Csongor Kis, specialist of European Furniture & Works of Art at Christie’s, New York. ‘He was a groundbreaking figure when it comes to mechanical furniture, which was not a complete novelty at the time, but Roentgen perfected the genre. His pieces are often easily recognisable just by looking at their quality, form, and materials.’
‘Many people are drawn to Roentgen because his style represents a very clean, pure Neoclassicism, as opposed to the extravagant, fanciful Rococo style that came before’
David Roentgen trained under his father, Abraham Roentgen, who opened a furniture manufactory in Neuwied, a German town on the east bank of the Rhine. It was not until he inherited his father’s company in 1772 that David’s creativity would reach a crescendo in terms of both design and business management.
Mechanisms and music
Perhaps, what Roentgen is most celebrated for is his furniture’s cleverly hidden mechanisms, which ranged from simple to incredibly complex. Spring-loaded hidden compartments and disguised doors and drawers were as utilitarian as they were awe-inspiring. Every piece had multiple functions designed for the user’s ease. The circa 1785–1790 cylinder bureau on offer, for example, has a writing surface that automatically comes forward when the top is opened, its interior features secret compartments, and the lower section featured drawers hidden deep inside the carcass. Moreover, for hassle-free transport, Roentgen designed his furniture with detachable legs.
Roentgen also made instruments, including important piano cases, as well as clavichords that initially appear like desks and open to reveal a musical surprise. The cabinetmaker’s ‘tour de force’, as Kis puts it, is undoubtedly La Joueuse de Tympanon (The Dulcimer Player), an automaton of Marie-Antoinette playing the dulcimer. Delivered to the queen in 1784, this masterwork of cabinetry, a collaboration between Roentgen and watchmaker Pierre Kintzing, is in the collection of the Musée des Arts et Métiers de Paris, and was featured in The Met’s 2012-13 exhibition, Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens. The casket and pair of occasional tables in The Collector were both included in this seminal show.
Disseminating the Roentgen look
Roentgen’s signature style was ormolu-mounted mahogany, which became widely copied throughout Europe. While the mahogany was typically sourced from Central America and the Caribbean, many of Roentgen’s bronze mounts were supplied by the Parisian maître-doreur (master gilder), François Rémond. Roentgen also worked with other woods and created pieces with unique marquetry and inlays.
‘A great quality of Roentgen’s large-scale furniture is that there are a lot of unadorned surfaces where one can really appreciate the natural beauty of the mahogany,’ says Kis. ‘Exotic woods became quite popular during the last quarter of the 18th century. The sheets of mahogany veneer Roentgen selected were the stars of the pieces themselves.’
In terms of specific forms, cylinder bureaux are most emblematic of Roengten’s œuvre. While the rolltop mechanism appeared in the early Neoclassical period — thanks to Graf von Kaunitz, Austrian ambassador to Paris between 1750 and 1753, who has often been credited with it — Roentgen was instrumental in popularising the form throughout Europe. This was largely due to his forward-thinking marketing tactics, which contributed to his reputation as a ‘creative genius’ and businessman, says Kis. For example, Roentgen travelled with full-scale pieces to other European cities and courts so that spectators could inspect, marvel at, and place orders for his creations.
On his visit to Paris in 1779, King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, as well as other members of the Royal family made important acquisitions, and eventually conferred upon Roentgen the courtesy title ébéniste mécanicien du Roi et de la Reine. After becoming King Frederick William II of Prussia’s Fournisseur Ordinaire de la Cour de Prusse, Roentgen found great success in Russia, where he visited the Imperial Court at St. Petersburg probably as many as six times between 1783 and 1791, and produced many of his finest pieces for Empress Catherine the Great. In fact, the secrétaire offered in The Collector sale also comes from the Russian Imperial Collections and has been recorded at Gatchina Palace in the 19th century.
As was common during the time, Roentgen conceived bespoke works for royal commissions, while also designing more readily available ‘stock’ pieces. ‘Regardless, the execution was always flawless. Everything that came out of his workshop was impeccable, beautiful, and of top quality,’ says Kis.
In addition to the secrétaire, the occasional tables and casket featured in the sale come from the collection of late New York collector, Ruth Stanton. In addition to loaning the casket and pair of tables to The Met’s 2012-13 exhibition on Roentgen, Stanton gifted several pieces by the cabinetmaker, including a cylinder bureau, to the museum.
‘Ruth was a rigorous collector who acquired everything that was considered avant-garde for its time, whether it was contemporary art, postwar design, or in this case, Roentgen’s 18th-century furniture. She had a very keen sense of style and would mix her Roentgen pieces with contemporary pieces in a way that was still very coherent,’ says Kis, illustrating the ease and livability Roentgen’s designs still hold in modern collections. While Stanton’s secretaire has imperial provenance, the casket in her collection formerly belonged to late fashion icon, Karl Lagerfeld. Although Roentgen executed numerous small boxes, the casket appears to be unique in form.
In January 2022, Christie’s sold the Collection of Pierre Durand, the late co-founder of The Chinese Porcelain Company, who was also a beloved fixture in the New York decorative arts social scene. Known for his excellent and eclectic taste, he, too, possessed a Roentgen ormolu-mounted mahogany work — a late 18th-century gueridon that sold well above its high estimate. This June, Christie’s will present Hubert de Givenchy — Collectionneur, yet another legendary collection that includes a superb ormolu-mounted mahogany cylinder bureau by Roentgen. Given how Roentgen’s distinct eye has resonated with centuries of tastemakers, from Marie-Antoinette to Givenchy, there’s no telling which stylish collections the four works offered in The Collector will find a home in next.