A German Baroque gilt-brass mounted black and gilt lacquer cabinet on stand by Gérard Dagly, Berlin, circa 1695
- Brass, lacquer, oak, maple, ebony, fruitwood, beech
By descent to King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia (1770-1840), by whom probably gifted to his second wife Auguste von Harrach, Princess von Liegnitz (1800-1873);
Her brother Karl Philipp, Reichsgraf von Harrach (1800-1878);
By family descent to the present owners.
H. Huth, Lacquer of the West, Chicago, 1971;
C. Fischer, “Ein Münzschrank von Gérard Dagly aus der Kunstkammer des ehemaligen Berliner Schlosses”, in W. Bandle (ed.), Lacklegenden: Festschrift für Monika Kopplin, Munich, 2013, pp. 153-69;
M. Kopplin, European Lacquer, Munich, 2010;
M. Kopplin (ed.), Gérard Dagly und die Berliner Hofwerkstatt, Munich, 2015;
A. Stiegel and C. Fischer, Der Münz- und Medaillenschrank aus dem Antiken- und Medaillenkabinett der Kunstkammer im Berliner Schloss, in M. Kopplin (ed.), op. cit., 2015, pp. 67-87.
The present unpublished cabinet is an important addition to the oeuvre of Gérard Dagly, perhaps the greatest master of European lacquer, and closely comparable to the extraordinary ensemble of furniture commissioned by Friedrich III, Elector of Brandenburg for one of the most celebrated rooms of the late 17th century, the “Antikenkabinett” in the Berliner Schloss. Meant to house the vast princely collection of antique coins and medals in the best Kunstkammer tradition, the suite comprised of four cabinets on stands and six tables. Only one of the four cabinets has been traced, and is now in Berlin’s Kunstgewerbemuseum at Schloss Köpenick (inv. no. O-1965,17; fig. 1). Until now, this was the earliest work securely attributed to Dagly, and widely considered to be his masterpiece. Described by contemporaries as “imitation of Japanese ware of extreme elegance” (“rarissimas Japonesium elegantias imitatur”), the four were illustrated in Lorenz Beger’s Thesaurus Brandenburgicus Selectus (1696; fig. 2).
The Early Taste for Lacquer
It is with the founding, in 1602, of the Dutch East India Company that lacquer goods alongside porcelain began to be imported to the West in increasingly considerable quantities. Like porcelain, lacquer had been known to the European elite for centuries, reaching centres such as the city of Venice after long journeys along the silk routes. Lacquered objects, some of them from the Middle East, are found in the legendary Kunstkammern of Archduke Ferdinand at Schloss Ambras, in Tyrol, and of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague.
Although “European” lacquering techniques had already been developed by the early Renaissance, it is towards the end of the 17th century that, not least for economic reasons – as much was spent on the acquisition of foreign goods - potentates sought to encourage the production of a European version of lacquer not inferior to the export pieces that were then being shipped from China and Japan, in a frenzy that can perhaps be compared to the quest for recreating (and collecting) porcelain.1
Royal and princely patrons in the German territories appear to have cultivated a singularly intellectual passion for Eastern lacquer: as noted by Kopplin (2010, p. 188), unlike in other countries and in later years, this collecting was “not an unthinking delight in the exotic but, rather, a serious attempt at acquiring in-depth knowledge of China, Chinese culture, and Chinese thought”.
Asian lacquer is derived from the sap of the Rhus tree, a resin which is tapped and refined through an extremely laborious process, and results in incredibly durable and lustrous surfaces.2 As noted by Huth (1971, p. 21), “throughout most of the seventeenth century European scholars believed that Indian shellac formed the basis of all Eastern lacquerwork”. Much like with porcelain, Europeans tried to reproduce this wondrous element, but had to make do with local ingredients.3 European goods were thus either “varnished” or “lacquered”. In the first case, the varnish used would often be sandarac, extracted from a North African tree; in the second, shellac, a resin also known as gomma lacca, the product of an insect that infests the so-called red lacquer tree, traded from India. In Germany, lacquerwork (Lackarbeit) appears to have flourished first in Hamburg, but it is in the courtly centres of Berlin - under the Dagly workshop - and later Dresden - under that of Martin Schnell - that the best results were achieved.
The Greatest Lacquerer
Little is known of Dagly’s early life, except that he originated in the town of Spa, where he was the first to specialize in the production of lacquer items later known as "bois de Spa". His early reputation brought him to the attention of Friedrich Wilhelm, the Great Elector of Brandenburg, who in 1687 appointed him "Cammerkünstler" in Berlin. Under his son Friedrich III Dagly held increasingly important positions. In 1696 he became “Intendant des Ornaments”, responsible for the whole interior decoration of the Berlin Royal palaces, with the Stadtschloss being rebuilt under the supervision of Johann Nering and Martin Grünberg. The same year he patented his own formula for lacquer and was granted virtual monopoly on lacquer goods by the Prince, but he was also able to pursue other interests, such as alchemy, and friendships with some of the leading men of his times, such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, with whom he corresponded at length. Through Dagly’s inventions, Berlin quickly became the centre for European lacquer, earning the workshop great fame. In a letter to the Electress of Hanover in 1704, Elisabeth Charlotte, Princess of the Palatinate wrote: “They must have good workmen in Berlin to be able to make such fine things; it is perhaps an Indian who is making the beautiful cabinets here.” [“Man muß gutte arbeyter zu Berlin haben, daß sie so schönne sachen Machen können; es ist vielleicht ein Indianer, so die schönne cabinetten zu Berlin macht.”] This golden age ended abruptly with the accession to the throne of Friedrich Wilhelm I (1713), as the new "Soldier King" chose to dramatically cut the court expenditure on the arts. Dagly’s brother, Jacques, emigrated to Paris, where his knowledge would be instrumental for the innovations of the Martin brothers, Royal decorators at Versailles.
Decorative Language and Technique
More than anyone before or after him Dagly understood and was able to closely recreate the figural style, colour scheme and surfaces of Japanese lacquer. Thus, on masterpieces such as the present cabinet on stand and the Köpenick one, Dagly adopts an asymmetrical disposition of the decorative elements, and seeks to faithfully reproduce Japanese makie, or “sprinkled picture”, both flat (hiramakie) and raised (takamakie), as well as the glittering nashiji (aventurine lacquer).
The two panels similarly and admirably mirror the subject matter, the left panel depicting two Japanese cranes, a branch of peonies on a scrollwork and foliage base, and two swallows, as well as one further, shorter branch of chrysanthemums and vine, and the right panel also with two swallows, in a different disposition, one shorter branch of chrysanthemums and vine, and a branch of probably hawthorn or prunus with two herons crouching on the rockwork and foliage base.
The cabinet shares strikingly similar decorative language and construction to the Köpenick piece, although its proportions are slightly smaller, and the shaped dome adopts a different solution. The very fine engraved gilt-metal mounts and escutcheons are however identical,4 as is the locking mechanism and the olivewood-veneered interior of the doors, strung with boxwood and ebony and the veneering on maple and oak. Furthermore, both cabinets were formerly fitted with specimen drawers destined to contain the Elector's medals. The stand is also decorated in a similar fashion with twisting (now faded) ornamental vine of Japanese origin. Research conducted by Christian Fischer on the construction of the Köpenick cabinet, shows doors made of vertically cut planks with a cross-section at the upper and lower edge with tongue-and-groove and small filling panels meant to prevent shrinkage cracks. As it is known that Dagly employed the same joiner for his finest pieces, Berendt Lewen, from at least 1690, a similar construction on our cabinet is to be expected (cf. Fischer, 2013, pp. 158-61). Finally, the stretcher presents the unique feature of a rounded and originally profiled internal border that is only to be found on the Köpenick cabinet.
For lacquering, Dagly would apply a base layer on to the veneered boards, to which layers of pigmented varnish would be added – each allowed to dry, presumably over several days – then an additional layer of transparent varnish. For the takamakie reliefs, streaks of cobalt or in places of sinople, a dark-reddish pigment, would be added and modeled, before the final application of an additional layer of lacquer, gilding, and a last coat of varnish. In spite of scientific analysis carried out under the supervision of Monika Kopplin prior to the Dagly exhibition at Münster in 2015, the exact formula of the master’s lacquer remains a mystery to this day.
A further interesting comparison was in the lost Chinese Room in the Berliner Schloss, destroyed by bombing in February 1945. The room consisted of two twelve-fold Coromandel lacquer screens, one of which was sent as a gift from Holland in 1689, and a wainscoting by Dagly’s workshop. Dagly’s uniqueness certainly lies in his profound understanding and translation of the original East Asian works of art, of which the Berlin court owned several examples. While most artists interested in chinoiserie at the time would work from pattern books, Dagly actually traveled to Holland in order to inspect East-Asian lacquer-ware first-hand, and found inspiration in the original artworks rather than in printed media, which resulted in an incredibly vivid take on Oriental decoration that managed to be at the same time idiosyncratic yet astonishingly close to the original. Note, for example, the cranes on the destroyed Coromandel screen in subtle dialogue with Dagly’s panel underneath (fig. 3) and compare it to the left panel of our cabinet. The Fenghuangs, or phoenixes, on the Köpenick cabinet, also have an antecedent in the Chinese Room screen.
Tracing the provenance
The royal or Kurfurstlich monogram of King Friedrich I on the present cabinet, its proportions and the important similarities in structure and lacquerwork, all point to the cabinet having been intended for the Berliner Schloss. Crucially, in 1702 (Friedrich had been king for one year) the German scholar and bibliophile Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1683-1734) writes of having visited “the incomparable treasures of medals, delicately kept in four cabinets, all delicately lacquered by the clever Dagli [sic]”, further reporting of plans for a fifth cabinet to be built, also to house more coins from the Royal collection (“Hierzu sollte in kurzer Zeit das fünfte kommen, das zu alten und andern Schätzbaren numis uncialibus gebraucht werden wird”, quoted by Stiegel and Fischer in Kopplin, 2015, p. 73).
It cannot however be excluded, in Monika Kopplin's opinion, that the present cabinet is one of the four commissioned for the Antikenkabinett; it should be remembered in fact that Berger's illustration was an idealized version of the room, and there is no proof to substantiate that the four cabinets were all of the same size. In fact, the presence of the exact same mounts on both surviving pieces and the striking similarities in construction - see the unique shape of the stretcher - suggest there could have been two pairs of cabinets in the room, rather than four identical pieces: two smaller cabinets, with two frieze drawers, and two larger ones.
The four Münz-Schränke were removed from their original location by will of Friedrich the Great around the mid-18th century; the collection of coins and medals allocated elsewhere, and it is at this point that the drawers were dismantled. All traces are then lost in the Royal inventories until the Köpenick cabinet resurfaces in the Neues Palais in the second half of the 19th century.
Auguste von Harrach
The Harrach family, one of the most prominent families of the Habsburg Empire, dates back to the 12th century, receiving the title of Imperial Counts from Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor. When Auguste, the daughter of Count Ferdinand Joseph von Harrach of Rohrau (1763-1841), met Friedrich in Teplitz, Bohemia, in 1822, the King had been widowed for twelve years. The love affair that followed resulted in a morganatic marriage celebrated at Charlottenburg in 1824, and which took Berlin by surprise. Created Princess von Liegnitz and granted a generous allowance, the beautiful Auguste was nonetheless kept at the very margins of the Royal Court and, in spite of having nursed Friedrich through his final illness in 1840, was not allowed to attend his funeral. The present Münzschrank probably entered her collection in 1824, and could have furnished either her apartment in the Prinzessinnenpalais in Berlin, or the newly-built Villa Liegnitz in Park Sanssouci, both of which remained her residences until her death in 1873.
Much has been said of the disparity of European and East Asian lacquer, with Hans Huth noting in his seminal work Lacquer of the West (1971) how “this goal of absolute perfection in the production of an object is one of the main factors distinguishing an oriental piece from its European equivalent” (p. 33). European lacquer nonetheless thrived across more than two centuries, achieving a virtually independent status in the 18th century that went beyond the recurrent vogues for chinoiserie. The work of Gérard Dagly remains however unique in this vast landscape, not only for his technical achievements, but also for his unremittent quest for an integral, organic aesthetic that still is the closest to the Eastern models and which raises his most accomplished output to the category of true works of art.
1 Perhaps the most striking testimony of this affinity is to be found in Augustus the Strong’s Japanese Palace in Dresden, where the East Asian porcelain and lacquer, and their Saxon imitations, were displayed together (cf. Kopplin, 2010, p. 12).
2 A clear and succinct description of this complicated procedure is found in Lacquer: An International History and Collector’s Guide, London, 1984, pp. 12-15.
3 For a detailed discussion on the attempts to discover the nature of lacquer in Europe during the 17th and early 18th century, see H. Huth, Lacquer of the West, Chicago, 1971, pp. 19-35.
4 Although identical in design, these mounts were clearly specifically cast for this cabinet, as a close inspection has revealed.
Sotheby's thanks Professor Monika Kopplin for her assistance on the research of this lot.