Silversmith: Johann Valentin Gevers (German, ca. 1662–1732)

Silversmith: Medallions possibly by Johann Andreas Thelot (German, 1655–1734)

Date: ca. 1710

Culture: German, Augsburg

Medium: Oak and pine veneered with tortoiseshell, silver, silver gilt, and green-stained ivory; mirror glass

Dimensions: Overall: 78 7/8 × 39 3/4 in. (200.3 × 101 cm)

Classification: Woodwork-Furniture

Credit Line: Wrightsman Fund, 1989

Accession Number: 1989.20


This sumptuous mirror beautifully evokes the wealth of silver furnishings at the Versailles of Louis XIV (1638–1715) and, to a lesser extent, at other European Baroque palaces.[1] Well documented in contemporary descriptions, the 167 pieces of silver furniture in Louis's state rooms, as counted by a Swedish architect, Nicodemus Tessin the Younger (1654–1728), were mostly made at the Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne at the Hôtel des Gobelins, in Paris.[2] Symbolizing the glory and magnificence of the Sun King, this opulent furniture astonished and dazzled all who saw it. Foreign rulers sought to emulate the example set by Louis, and long after his silver furniture had been melted down to pay for his military campaigns, similar costly pieces were still ordered for the state apartments of princely and other aristocratic residences all over Europe.

One of the most important centers for working precious metals was the German city of Augsburg, and many of the pieces of silver furniture known today originated there. Unlike the furnishings executed for Louis XIV, which were nearly all made of solid silver, the objects executed in Augsburg consisted of a wooden core covered by thin silver plates. Augsburg silversmiths also supplied silver and silver-gilt mounts for the embellishment of luxurious objects veneered with tortoiseshell and tinted ivory, such as the Museum's mirror.

The pronounced geometric projections of the mirror's colorful frame are typical of the South German Baroque. The feature seems to have been particularly fashionable in Augsburg, as is seen in the stepped stands of clock cases, altars, and cabinets that were also executed there. The elaborate silver and silver-gilt mounts, however, rendered in a strictly symmetrical manner, are French in character. The volutes, bandwork, acanthus foliage, tasseled lambrequin motifs, fruit and flower baskets, birds, masks, and drapery ornament appear to have been inspired by the designs of the influential French architect Jean Bérain (1638/39–1711). Bérain's decorative style was disseminated abroad by Huguenot craftsmen who left France in 1685 after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Jeremias Wolff (1663/73–1724) and other Augsburg publishers sold pirated copies of Bérain's designs during the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century. In addition, many German silversmiths had spent several years of training abroad, often in Paris, and foreign journeymen came to work in Augsburg, stimulating the exchange of ideas and adoption of new styles.

Marks on the silver-gilt lambrequin suspended from the elaborately decorated crest and overlapping the top of the mirror's frame (fig. 48) identify it as the work of the Augsburg silversmith Johann Valentin Gevers and date it between 1708 and 1710.[3] Gevers was most likely also responsible for the seated allegorical figures of Prudence with a mirror and snake, on the right, and Temperance holding calipers and a bridle, on the left, as well as for the rest of the silver crest decoration. This work suggests that Gevers was familiar with Bérain's designs.

The four silver medallions with scenes in relief, however, were probably not executed by Gevers. They are in the style of Johann Andreas Thelot, an Augsburg silversmith known for his figural reliefs, and may have originated in his workshop.[4] It would not have been the first time that works of these silversmiths were used together. A magnificent Augsburg altar clock on table-stand in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, for instance, also combines mounts by Gevers with reliefs by Thelot.[5] The cartouche-shaped medallions that flank the top of the mirror glass depict a courting couple dressed according to the fashion of the French aristocracy during the 1690s (see fig. 49). The pair of medallions below may represent two of the continents. The one on the right with a crown, a scepter, and a horse as her attributes is probably Europe. The treasure chest and camels in the background of the left medallion may indicate that Asia is depicted. It is unusual to find two rather than all four continents represented in a decorative scheme. Perhaps this mirror originally had a pair that was embellished with representations of America and Africa. If so, the crest of the pair may have displayed the allegorical figures of Justice and Fortitude, which, together with Temperance and Prudence found on this piece, would have represented the four Cardinal Virtues.

Pieces of engraved glass are inserted in the superstructure and the lower part of the frame. The largest of them is in the form of a lambrequin with a silver-gilt, fringed, and tasseled border and is mounted on the mirror's cresting, underneath the baldachin-shaped top. Probably resilvered, this section is engraved with a female bust crowned with laurel leaves and surrounded by a laurel wreath and palm branches.

The wooden core of the mirror was first veneered with tortoiseshell and ivory and then set with pieces of glass according to contemporary practice. To enhance the color of the tortoiseshell, derived from sea turtles, a layer of gold leaf was applied underneath, and additional spots were painted on the inside to increase its mottled effect. Tinted green, the ivory was probably colored with verdigris using a technique described in manuals of the period.[6] Tiny nails, many of them now missing, were used to fasten the silver mounts to the frame. The plain strips of silver were not nailed but placed directly on a wooden molding from which they received their form. A mold, or perhaps a special rolling device, was used to shape and pattern the gadrooned and decorated bands of silver.[7] They were not directly attached to the wooden molding underneath; instead, a layer of resin mixed with glue was applied in between. By pressing the thin pieces of silver on this adhesive layer, the motifs were imprinted in the underlying mixture as well. Some of these silver bands were originally gilded. Much of this has been lost through repeated polishing, but traces are still visible in certain areas that are hard to clean.

It was the specialty of a certain type of cabinetmaker, referred to as Silberschreiner or Silberkistler, to veneer the surface of furniture with tortoiseshell, ivory, and occasionally semiprecious stones.[8] Since this type of furniture was extremely costly, it was generally only made to order through an agent, or Silberhändler, who served as middleman between the patron and the various artists involved. The agents submitted designs for approval to the client, selected the silversmith to whom they supplied the necessary silver, and chose the Silberschreiner, who mounted the different elements together on a wooden core. In addition, the agents were responsible for the packing and shipping of the finished objects and for all the financial aspects involved.

Although it bears some resemblance to a mirror now in the Severoceské Museum in Liberec, Czech Republic, nothing is known about the early history of the Metropolitan Museum's mirror.[9] During the twentieth century it was, for a considerable time, with the Parisian antiques dealership established by Jacques Seligmann (1858–1923). When the firm lent it to the "Chefs-d'oeuvre de la curiosité du monde" exposition in Paris in 1954,[10] it was described as "the single piece of goldsmith's work most commented on in the exhibition."[11] Subsequently in private hands, this splendid example of German Baroque furniture was offered for sale in 1988,[12] and the Museum acquired it the following year.

[Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide 2006]

[1] The text of this entry is adapted from an entry by the present author in "Recent Acquisitions" 1990, pp. 26–27; and from Kisluk-Grosheide 1991.

[2] Hernmarck 1953, pp. 113–14; Buckland 1983, pp. 271–79, 283; and Buckland 1989.

[3] Seling 1980, vol. 3, pp. 23, 291.

[4] Praël-Himmer 1978, pp. 42–45, 70–71, nos. 38, 39, 80, figs. 37–40, 42–45, 81–83.

[5] Illustrated in Seling 1980, vol. 1, p. 349, no. 1077, and vol. 2, fig. 1077.

[6] Kunst- und Werck-Schul 1707, p. 1314.

[7] Brandner et al. 1976, p. 60; and Rudolph 1999.

[8] The silver turner Joh. Christoph Rembold described the practice of these craftsmen in letters he sent to the Augsburg goldsmiths' guild between 1699 and 1705: The silver turner Joh. Christoph Rembold described the practice of these craftsmen in letters he sent to the Augsburg goldsmiths' guild between 1699 and 1705: "[They] let the goldsmiths make plate with which they then veneer and cover all kinds of mirror frames, wall sconces, guéridons, tables, chairs, caskets, and writing cabinets, etc. They decorate such [objects] also with solid foliage, images, and many mounted stones"; ([Sie] lassen die Goldschmide bleche schlagen, Fourniren und überdeken hernach damit allerhand Spiegel Ramen, Wandleuchter, Gueridons, Tische, Sessel, Trühlen und Schreibkasten etc. Zieren auch solche mit Massivem Laubwerk, bildern und villen gefassten Steinen); quoted in Rathke-Köhl 1964, p. 60, n. 223.

[9] Discussed and illustrated in Kisluk-Grosheide 1991, pp. 4, 15, figs. 17, 18.

[10] Chefs-d'oeuvre de la curiosité du monde 1954, no. 306, pl. 145.

[11] "la pièce d'orfèvrerie la plus commentée de l'exposition"; "La glace la plus extraordinaire" 1954, p. 67.

[12] Allegedly, it was in the possession of J. Rossignol, whose family offered it for sale at Ader Picard Tajan, Paris, 17 March 1988, lot 87.