Three of a Kind: Snuff Boxes After Engravings

By Sotheby's

T he upcoming Style: European Silver, Ceramics, and Objects of Vertu sale is full of lots that are both practical and highly decorative. Here we look at three snuff box lots that, although very different in terms of manufacture and purpose, are all unified by transforming a two-dimensional artwork into a three-dimensional, functional object.

1. The inside of the lid of this magnificent jade-green Meissen snuff box, circa 1740 shows a miniature representing Leda and the Swan. It is very likely that the source for this painting in porcelain was a miniature by the Swedish artist Carl Gustav Klingstedt (1657 – 1734). Klingstedt’s version, in turn, seems to have been influenced by Michelangelo’s version of Leda and the Swan (circa 1530).

Whilst this painting is now lost, it has been preserved through a large number of copies and prints made in the following centuries. For a long time, the myth of the divine swan seducing the mortal Leda fascinated painters, sculptors and goldsmiths alike, but arguably it was most prominent in the Italian Renaissance, not least because of its erotic overtones.

2. A very early example is this silver-gilt toilet box of continental origin, circa 1680. Embossed and chased in high relief, a classic myth has been transformed from an engraving into silver and gold. The cover of this box, which would have contained a lady’s vanity or travelling utensils, represents perhaps one of the most classic and timeless stories of love: Venus and Mars. This version was based on an engraving by Michel Dorigny (1616-1665), a version of which belongs to the British Museum in London.

Dorigny’s engraving, in turn, was inspired by Simon Vouet’s painting of Venus and Mars. Just like the two other snuff boxes in this selection, the goldsmith has not taken his inspiration directly from a painting, but had access to the ideas that came to life in the painting via prints like this one or another version by Fabrizio Cari, which had been in much wider circulation since the early 17th century.

3. Lastly, this gold and enamel snuff box, made in Hanau, circa 1785, symbolises the loss of innocence, represented by a young girl mourning the death of her canary. The enamel miniature on the lid has been attributed to the renowned enamel painter Pierre-François Marcinhès (1739-1778), and a very similar portrait in enamel, signed by the Geneva-born miniaturist, belongs to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

There is little reason to doubt that Marcinhès had referred to Jean-Jacques Flipart’s engraving L’Oiseau Mort as a source. Les Frères Toussaint, the Hanau makers of the present snuff box, were strongly influenced by designs and tendencies in gold box-making in Paris at the time, and were possibly even aware of French gold and enamel snuff boxes with enamel miniatures representing the same subject as in the present lot, such as an example in the Thurn and Taxis Collection.By 1762, they had several German and foreign craftsmen working for them, making Hanau an important centre for the production of gold boxes

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