David Roentgen (1) was the best known German cabinetmaker of the eighteenth century. He was born in Herrnhag, Germany, the son of the cabinetmaker Abraham Roentgen (1711-1793). Beginning in 1757, he trained in his father's workshop at the Moravian Brethren settlement of the Herrnhuter in Neuwied near Coblenz as a journeyman carpenter (Schreinergeselle) and succeeded his father as head of the workshop in 1772, although he likely was already actively in charge of the workshop as early as 1768. He was a successful entrepreneur and transformed the family business from a national into an international firm with royal and aristocratic clients in France, Germany, England, and Russia. He recognized that the largest market for fine furniture at the time was in Paris, and between 1779 and 1789 he supplied the French court of King Louis XVI with furniture costing nearly a million livres – more than any other cabinetmaker of the period. In 1780, Queen Marie-Antoinette appointed Roentgen as her cabinetmaker (ébéniste-mécanicien de la Reine), and in the same year he was admitted as master cabinetmaker (maître-ébéniste) in the French guild of cabinetmakers. Roentgen first sold his furniture in Paris through a mirror merchant named Brébant, in the rue Saint-Martin, until about 1781 when he set up a sales gallery of his own in Paris on the rue de Grenelle. However, unlike other foreign cabinetmakers, he did not open a workshop in Paris but continued to design and build furniture in Neuwied. After his visit to Russia in 1783, the Czarina Catherine the Great also ordered large amounts of furniture from him.
Roentgen specialized in furniture with ingenious secret compartments, complicated mechanisms, and unusual marquetry (pictorial depictions or decorative patterns created on furniture surfaces with wood veneers). Although his father, Abraham Roentgen, had also been a master of employing complicated mechanisms, it was with the assistance of Johann Christian Krause (1748-1792) and, beginning about 1770, the clockmaker Peter Kinzing (1745-1816) that Roentgen improved these mechanical devices to make drawers and reading and writing stands open and close automatically. Roentgen’s mastery of these mechanisms greatly helps to explain his high standing among contemporary cabinetmakers and his popularity with the royal courts and aristocrats of Europe. Between about 1766 and 1769, Roentgen also began to introduce a new style of marquetry, known as the à la mosaïque technique, in which the modeling of the image was achieved by the juxtaposition of small pieces of differently-colored wood veneer arranged like a jigsaw puzzle and similar in effect to the stone mosaic technique known as pietra dura. The à la mosaïque technique relied on fairly thick veneers (typically two millimeters or greater), usually of common woods such as fruitwoods, maple, and beech, that were died throughout in various shades and intensities of the same colour. This technique began to appear in Roentgen workshop furniture about 1768, although it occasionally was seen somewhat earlier in Roentgen’s floral motifs of roses, tulips, and bellflowers. (2) Before the introduction of the à la mosaïque technique, most cabinetmakers, including Roentgen, achieved pictorial modeling by scorching and smoking the veneers and by the extensive use of engraving.
During his career, David Roentgen designed in both the Rococo and Neoclassical styles that were popular in Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century. Although his work of the late 1760s and early 1770s began to introduce certain Neoclassical elements to otherwise essentially Rococo pieces, it was in 1774, when he first went to Paris, that he began seriously studying the Neoclassical style, and by the late 1770s he had altogether abandoned the Rococo in favor of the new style. In 1789, the French Revolution brought an end to his international business. The French Revolutionary government seized the contents of his showroom and his personal belongings in 1793. Five years later, the Napoleonic invasion of Neuwied led to the closing of his workshops there, and he was forced to sell his stock in 1805. He died at Wiesbaden on February 12, 1807.
This Rococo architect’s table dates to ca. 1770 and was very probably designed by David Roentgen at Neuwied, Germany. The table is made of oak and cherry and is veneered over-all in stained maple. The top is veneered with four sheets of maple veneer (originally dyed gray) and cross banded in highly figured rosewood with an additional green-stained maple border. The top, entablature drawer, sides, and back are inlaid with pictorial marquetry of various stained woods (most likely maple and beech with possibly more exotic woods). The four removable cabriole legs, each edged with green maple veneer banding that continues at the lower edge of the entablature, support a drawer with two ormolu handles (3) (possibly of English manufacture) and a steel key plate (possibly not original). The drawer has a black leather-covered writing board with a gilt-tooled border and two movable compartments that reveal an additional drawer and storage spaces. An additional small compartment, which would have been accessed from the side of the drawer, is now lost. The front of the drawer is decorated with colored marquetry floral sprays inlaid to the sides of the handles. Similar sprays are centered on the sides and back. All of the entablature rails have a serpentine contour on the lower edge and also project outward with slight bombé shaping.
The top board can be mechanically raised either to an easel configuration or to an elevated flat configuration by means of two ratcheted lyre-shaped supports. This allows this type of table (known in German as a Pultschreibtisch) to be employed at either a seated or a standing position. The top board is elaborately decorated with a still life of floral marquetry. In the lower third, above the inlaid reading slope, is the depiction of what appears to be the rectangular top of a fluted pier or pedestal, along the side of which are foliate vines. On the top of this pedestal are various colored floral sprays formed from dyed veneers (now partly faded), some of which rise above the pedestal into the upper area of the design. (4) At the top, a green ribbon, festooned with small flowers, is represented as threaded through five eyelets at the top and sides of the cross-veneered banding. The ribbon forms a bowknot at the center eyelet. Curiously, the composition of the pedestal and flowers is off-center, being positioned closer to the left side.
The Dumbarton Oaks architect’s table can be dated to ca. 1770. Its marquetry designs are typical of those used on tables made in the Roentgen workshop between 1768 and 1770, which consisted of bold pictorial Rococo ribbons, flowers, fruit, birds, and insects. (5) These late Rococo work tables and center tables also all have slender cabriole legs, a single entablature frieze drawer, few ormolu mounts of a simple and often English design, and simple floral sprays of marquetry on the sides and tops. In particular, the rendering of the roses is characteristic on these pieces. Although the ornamental draftsmen of these designs are unrecorded, several invoices from the engraver Elie Gervais sent to David Roentgen in the years 1771 and 1772 suggest that he and his employees, Raillard and Louis Schmoutz, had drawn flowers for Roentgen. (6) The marquetry designs on this group of tables are mostly elaborately stained, scorched, and engraved. However, on the Dumbarton Oaks table, the scorching and engraving is kept to a minimum, and the presence of Roentgen’s new à la mosaïque technique suggests a date around 1770 just before Roentgen abandoned scorching and engraving altogether in favor of the exclusive use of the new technique.
The ca. 1770 dating is also confirmed by the unusual lottery that David Roentgen held in Hamburg in 1769. In 1768, when the Roentgen business faced a shortage of commissions and capital due in large part to the deprivations of the Seven Years War (1756-1763), David Roentgen devised a plan to hold a lottery in Hamburg on May 29, 1769, to sell the firm’s inventory of one hundred pieces of furniture. The lottery’s 1768 printed announcement, which lists all the possible prizes, describes as number eight a table resembling, although not identical to the Dumbarton Oaks table: Ein Schreib-Tisch, welcher zum stehen und sitzenden Schreiben mit vielen sonstigen Bequemlichkeiten eingerichtet, dessen Oberblatt mit Blumen, Vögeln und Insecten eingelegt ist [A writing table, which for writing standing or seated is furnished with many other conveniences, and whose top is inlaid with flowers, birds, and insects]. (7)
Dating the table to ca. 1770 opens the possibility that it was designed or partly designed by David Roentgen’s father, Abraham Roentgen. Certainly, Abraham Roentgen had introduced this type of Pultschreibtisch with a mechanical top in the 1760s. A mahogany-on-oak writing table of very similar, although larger design but without marquetry veneering is in a private collection and dated ca. 1760. (8) However, by 1766 David Roentgen is known to have been already deeply involved in the design and production of the furniture and by 1768 was managing the workshop. The lack of density in the composition of the floral marquetry—an aesthetic direction towards which David Roentgen was leading the workshop—and the introduction of the à la mosaïque technique suggest the hand of David Roentgen in the design of this table. Moreover, David Roentgen is believed to be the designer of a related late Rococo oval writing table, dated ca. 1770, that is in the collection of the Staatliche Schlösser und Gärten Wörlitz, Oranienbaum und Luisium. (9) The table is similarly veneered with stained maple and rosewood veneers and inlaid with floral marquetry. The top in banded in a manner nearly identical to the Dumbarton Oaks table, and characteristic tulip and rose blossoms are found in the floral marquetry. Moreover, the top also uses the design of a ribbon interlaced through eyelets in the cross-banded border. These ribbons are not festooned with flowers, however, and the floral bouquet, which is tied together with a bowknot and bisected by gardening implements, is done more in the manner of a Neoclassical trophy. Roentgen would continue to employ the ribbon motif on his fully Neoclassical pieces of the 1770s and 80s, although they are usually suspended from rings rather than being interlaced through eyelets.
On the Dumbarton Oaks table, the use of what is most likely English hardware, although seemingly at odds with German Rococo cabinetry, is, in fact, consistent with the Roentgen workshop practice. Abraham Roentgen has worked in England and introduced in Germany various English designs, and David Roentgen characterized himself as an “Englischer Cabinetmacher” and often played up the workshop’s English connections. In the 1768 catalogue for the 1769 lottery, for example, he wrote: “alle daran befindliche Beschläge sind fein Engl. oder im Feuer verguldet” [all of their mounts are fine English or fire-gilt]. (10) Six years later, when he offered a toilette table to the Margravine of Baden at Karlsruhe, he similarly pointed out the “Englischen Handgrifen” [English pulls]. (11)
The first director of Dumbarton Oaks, John S. Thacher, acquired this desk in 1962 for his personal collection. However, when Mildred Bliss saw the desk after its arrival in Washington, “she decided that she simply had to have the desk for the new Garden Library…at Dumbarton Oaks,” as Thacher wrote the German dealer Julius Böhler in 1962.
(1) In addition to the studies cited in the notes below, for the biography and works of David Roentgen, see Andreas Büttner, David Roentgen Möbelkunst und Marketing im 18. Jahrhundert (Regensburg, 2009); Andreas Büttner, Ursula Weber-Woelk, and Bernd Willscheid, eds., Edle Möbel für höchste Kreise, Roentgens Meisterwerke für Europas Hofe (Neuwied, 2007); Achim Stiegel, Präzision und Hingabe, Möbelkunst von Abaham und David Roentgen (Berlin, 2007); and Petra Krutisch, Weltberühmt und heiß begehrt, Möbel der Roentgen-Manufaktur in der Sammlung des Germanischen Nationalmuseums (Nuremburg, 2007).
(2) See Rosemarie Stratmann-Döhler, Mechanische Wunder, edles Holz: Roentgen-Möbel des 18. Jahrhunderts in Baden und Württemberg (Karlsruhe, 1998), 48 and 96.
(3) Similar handles are found on a chest of drawers dated 1766 in a private collection. See Dietrich Fabian, Roentgenmöbel aus Neuwied, Leben und Werk von Abraham und David Roentgen (Bad Neustadt, 1986), 144-145, figs. 328 and 332.
(4) Consoles supporting floral sprays are also found on a secretary dated ca. 1765-1768 in the Residenzmuseum, Würzburg. See Fabian, Roentgenmöbel aus Neuwied, 196-197, fig. 464.
(5) See Josef Maria Greber, Abraham und David Roentgen: Möbel für Europa (Starnberg, 1980) vol. 2, nos. 271-278.
(6) Fabian, Roentgenmöbel aus Neuwied, 351, nos. 2.102 and 2.103.
(7) See Hans Huth, Roentgen Furniture, Abraham and David Roentgen: European Cabinet-Makers (London and New York, 1974), fig. 3b.
(8) See Fabian, Roentgenmöbel aus Neuwied, 37, fig. 23.
(9) See Burkhardt Göres, “Möbel von David Roentgen. Eine Austellung,” Forschungen und Berichte, vol. 17 Kunsthistorische und volkskundliche Beiträge (1976), 145, cat. 1, figs. 1-3.
(10) See Huth, Roentgen Furniture, fig. 3a.
(11) Georg Himmelheber, “Beobachtungen an unbekannten Roentgen-Möbeln,” Jahrbuch der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen in Baden-Württemberg vol. 1 (1964), 236.