Neuber, orfèvre minéralogiste à la Cour de Saxe
The exhibition held at the galerie Kugelduring fall 2012, organized with the Grünes Gewölbe in Dresden and the Frick Collection in New York, was devoted to the work of Johann Christian Neuber (1732–1808), mineralogist and goldsmith at the court of the Elector Frederick Augustus III of Saxony. While Paris was the undisputed capital of taste and fashion in the Age of Enlightenment, in particular for that essential accessory, the snuffbox, Neuber was able to assimilate French esprit and even surpass it in creating his own style and inventions. He was rare among German artists of his time in achieving Europe-wide fame.
Drawing on an established Saxon tradition of working in semi-precious stones, Neuber perfected and developed to its zenith the technique known as Zellenmosaic or cloisonné encrustation, making snuffboxes and galanteries not only refined in their taste but rich in the colours and patterns that only Saxon geology could afford. Alert to the rising taste, among the elite and the nobility of his age, for all 'natural' science and for mineralogy in particular, Neuber invented the Steinkabinettabatiere or snuffbox forming a mineralogical cabinet –miniature masterpieces combining, as he announced in his advertisment for their sale, «luxury, taste and science».
The exhibition presented nearly forty snuffboxes and galanteries from the Grünes Gewölbe, the celebrated 'green vault' in Dresden containing the world's finest collection of treasury art, from the museum of porcelain in Dresden and from a number of private collections. These exquisite works reveal Neuber's ingenuity in the service of beauty and cover all aspects of his production featuring enchanting landscapes, intricate floral designs and complex geometric patterns made out of tiny cut stones.
Neuber is also, or above all, the creator of one of the masterpieces of Western art, and certainly the most extraordinary piece of furniture conceived in the 18th century, the Breteuil Table. The occasion for its production had hardly less significance, as it was made as a gift to the diplomat who masterminded the Treaty of Teschen, 1779, one of the rare occasions when negotiation prevailed over the impulse to war. Following the example of the Steinkabinettabatieren, it is made of metal and semi-precious stones and displays on its tabletop 128 specimens of the most beautiful stones of Saxony. The table has never since left the château de Breteuil in the valley of the Chevreuse, 40 km west of Paris, since it was donated to Breteuil.
The exhibition offered a unique opportunity to discover the Breteuil Table amidst other monumental masterpieces that have recently been brought into the light of day – the Moritzburg console, made for Frederick Augustus III, and the table centrepiece the elector had made for Prince Repnin, formerly believed lost, which consists of allegorical figures in Meissen porcelain on a precious base by Neuber.
After Dresden and New York, Paris hosted the genius of Johann Christian Neuber and enables a wider public to discover Neuber's outstanding technical mastery allied to a fine sense for composition and color. This exhibition had about 100 000 visitors in its three locations. It was the first and perhaps the last exhibition on a snuffbox maker of the 18th century, for no other left such a personal and original heritage.
The exhibition in New York and Paris is accompanied by an appropriately magnificent book, edited by Alexis Kugel. It will appear in French with Editions Monelle Hayot and in English with Paul Holberton publishers in June 2012. It includes essays by experts in several fields, including Dirk Syndram, director and Jutta Kappel, deputy director of the Grünes Gewölbe, and an indispensable catalogue raisonné of more than 250 works.