Elephant tusk ivory has been prized since antiquity for the creation of small sculptures. Responsive to the cutting of fine detail, it enables carvers to achieve great artistic and emotional expressiveness in a highly compressed format. When polished, the lustrous surface of ivory is enticing to the touch and especially well suited for works meant to be handled in the intimate environment of private devotion or the collectors’ cabinets of the late Renaissance and Baroque eras.
Material and Techniques
Most ivory carved in Europe originated in Africa. Aside from its creamy light color, African ivory is distinguished by its extraordinary workability; its response to cutting and polishing is unique. Due to the fine crosshatched microstructure of its grain, it accepts the finest detailing and may be chiseled from almost any angle with comparatively little weakening or splintering. The gelatinous substance emitted from its pores eases cutting and yields a characteristic mellow sheen when polished.
Over the millennia, craftsmen developed specialized tools to exploit the potential of the material. Nevertheless, the form and structure of the elephant tusk imposed basic limits on the sculptor. African elephant tusks can be more than ten feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds, yet the deep pulp cavity in the upper third of the tusk creates a hollow region and the area surrounding it is restricted to shallow carving. The process of discerning the optimal sections of the tusk and extracting the maximum usable matter was as daunting as cutting a diamond.
The tapering solid ends (rarely more than eight inches in diameter) were used for sculpture in the round. Any design that extended outside the limits of the tusk’s curving form would need to be pieced together. Master carvers at the seventeenth-century European courts excelled in producing intricate compositions of one piece that conformed to the shape of the tusk.
The thinner walls of the hollow end were used for vessels such as tankards and cups (10.212.2a,b) or were sliced along the length of the tusk to form sheets employed for relief carving. Carvers took delight in shaving portions of their compositions to a translucent degree of thinness (24.80.87).
Ivory Routes to Europe
During the golden age of ivory carving in the Gothic period, African ivory reached Europe through a sophisticated international trade network that had evolved in the tenth century. About 1350, the expansion of the Ottoman empire into North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean began to impede this trade, leading, perhaps, to the collapse of carving activity in Europe.
In the late fifteenth century, Portuguese explorers, seeking a route to Asia that would bypass Ottoman territories, traveled down the west coast of Africa; there they established trade relations with the kingdoms in Sierra Leone and Benin that had long been bringing ivory from the interior of the continent. Portuguese traders acquired raw ivory and commissioned pieces from skillful African carvers for export to Europe. In the wake of initial contacts, a small stream of remarkable objects, carved with the tastes of foreign collectors in mind, made their way to the European market.
Portuguese explorers and traders, impressed by the high quality of ivory carving they encountered along the coast of West Africa, commissioned remarkable hybrid works that combine European imagery and forms with African ornament. The objects range from inventive spoons with figurative handles to more elaborate “saltcellars” (1991.435a,b) and hunting horns destined for collectors who admired them for their fine quality and exoticism. According to contemporary sources, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in Florence owned several African ivory carvings, as did grand dukes of Saxony and the Tyrol. Albrecht Dürer is thought to have bought two African saltcellars in the Netherlands before 1521.
The use of ivory for important sculpture declined in the late Middle Ages, coinciding with the demise of the ivory trade between Europe and Africa after the Ottoman conquest of North Africa. With rare exceptions, European sculptors of small-scale works turned to boxwood, a medium that shares some attributes of ivory. Boxwood, native to the Mediterranean region, is dense, hard, and capable of being highly polished, with an even grain and structure that yield masterfully detailed carvings (17.190.453). The product of a shrubby plant, it can be sculpted only in relatively small pieces. Sculptures in boxwood and related fine-grained wood were prized by artists and collectors for their exoticism, rarity, and deep warm brown, often bronzy surface (47.3.2).
Northern Europe, ca. 1450–1650
In Northern Europe, cosmopolitan rulers and other wealthy patrons promoted the Renaissance style; the leading center was the court of Margaret of Austria in Mechelen in the Netherlands (17.190.582). Nevertheless, a strong indigenous tradition, marked by realistic detail, fanciful costumes, and Mannerist poses, impeded the full acceptance of Renaissance classicism as practiced in France and Italy. Toward the end of this period, northern sculpture profited from a remarkable instance of cultural cross-fertilization (24.80.93) with the return to Germany and the Netherlands of the students of Giambologna, a Flemish-trained sculptor whose style had significantly influenced the art of sixteenth-century Florence.
The Baroque Era
The intense revival of ivory carving between 1600 and the mid-eighteenth century stemmed from the renewed flow of the valuable material into the hands of European sculptors, following the opening of new maritime routes along the east and west coasts of Africa. This revival coincided with the development of the Baroque style, particularly in the Netherlands and Central Europe. Emperors and princely patrons there created court positions for ivory carvers. They and other wealthy, cosmopolitan clients supported the growing number of skilled workshops whose traditions spread throughout the area, influencing generations of sculptors. Additionally, many of the same artists who worked in ivory (1980.220) continued to employ boxwood (64.164.242), which still suited later Baroque taste.
Although the artists who worked in ivory and boxwood also created monumental sculptures for churches and major civic spaces, their small pieces are characterized by an intensity of expression that often eluded their larger works. Works commissioned for public spaces continued to be primarily religious in nature, while a growing circle of humanist collectors were inclined to indulge a wider variety of subjects. Seeking art for display in the private arena of the Kunstkammer, they encouraged the creation of works inspired by the literature of antiquity (1982.60.129; 1980.220). As, with rare exceptions (24.80.87; 24.80.91; 2005.243), few small-scale sculptures are signed, scholars continue to try to identify the artists who made them by linking them to contracts, inventory records, and documented large-scale works.
Small-scale carvings in ivory and wood were among the rare objects collected by princes and wealthy citizens of the Low Countries and Central Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Many of their palaces had a Kunstkammer or a Wunderkammer (chamber for art or curiosities), where their treasures were displayed. The intention was to suggest the wealth and learning of the collector and to impress guests. The rise of the Kunstkammer coincided with the European age of exploration, when collectors sought to acquire exotic materials brought home from newly discovered lands. Ivories carved by African artists were followed by virtuoso carvings that European artists made from the raw ivory arriving on their shores, as well as particularly intricate, often grotesque, wood carvings (17.190.729).
Collecting Devotional Objects
Much as the Baroque Kunstkammer included numerous ivory carvings of profane and humanistic subjects, devout individuals, monasteries, and church treasuries amassed parallel collections of a religious nature (1971.68). They collected small-scale devotional sculptures in boxwood (24.80.89a,b) as well as ivory, a medium particularly suited to the depiction of Christ’s suffering. Carvers portrayed every phase of Christ’s Passion with acute attention to expression and unrivaled anatomical richness (50.182a–g).
The Baroque in Germany and Central Europe, ca. 1600–1800
As the seventeenth century progressed, the influence of Italian classicism was increasingly felt in Germany and Austrian Central Europe. But while many northern artists subsumed their traditional passion for realistic detail within more classical and balanced forms, there was still great diversity in carving styles. Some sculptors were influenced by their studies in Rome (24.80.87; 24.80.91) and by the proximity of Italian models in the collections of their wealthy patrons. Others display the more conservative, idiosyncratic manner of dynastic regional workshops that perpetuated a distinctive carving style and a fondness for extreme expression (1982.60.129). Despite—or because of—their oddity, many of these works found homes in princely and imperial collections.
The Baroque in the Netherlands and France, 1600–1800
Ultimately, Dutch traders assumed the former Portuguese monopoly in East Africa, bringing ever greater quantities of ivory to the Netherlands. Few seventeenth-century artists there could escape the overwhelming influence of Peter Paul Rubens, who brought his buoyant and effusive version of Italian style to Antwerp. At the same time, the Flemish sculptor François Duquesnoy, who had been active in Rome, introduced a more composed version of the classical Baroque. Sculptors working in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of this merchant society accepted the new styles much more readily than their peers in Germany and Austria, where indigenous traditions exerted a powerful hold. Netherlandish sculptors also enthusiastically embraced a wide range of subject matter, from religious themes (64.164.242) to riotous bacchanals and other subjects from classical antiquity (1980.220). In France, the Bourbon court style made itself felt in miniature (2005.243) as well as on the grandiose scale favored at Versailles.
Explosive growth in the ivory trade in the nineteenth century decimated the African elephant population; it also stimulated a near-industrial development of ivory carving, primarily in revival styles evoking the Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque eras. While some carvers of the period produced formidably intricate tours de force, the artistic quality that characterized the earlier ages, when ivory was a treasured rarity, could not survive in the new environment of mass production.
Hecht, Johanna. “Ivory and Boxwood Carvings, 1450–1800.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/boxw/hd_boxw.htm (October 2008)
Barnet, Peter, ed. Images in Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Age. Exhibition catalogue. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Bassani, Ezio, and William B. Fagg. Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Center for African Art, 1988.
Randall, Richard H., Jr. Masterpieces of Ivory from the Walters Art Gallery. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1985.