Metropolitan Museum – Gems And Articles De Vertu

THE engraving of gems was considered a rare art among the ancients. The lapidary’s work from the earliest times was sought for first to serve as an amulet, talisman, or charm ; the later use was that of a signet for securing by means of a seal of clay what now would be locked. Eventually the seal, always cut intaglio, was used for attesting documents and subscribing to their contents. From Chaldean times on, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used these small stones. During the Middle Ages the art was in abeyance, while in the Renaissance it exerted itself principally in the making of portraits and the engraving of larger stones in cameo.

The stones used for these purposes were among the Assyrians the black and green serpentine. The Chaldaeans used chalcedony, the Egyptians for their scarabei a slaty stone easily cut. Serpentine was used at first by the Greeks, but later the more noble chalcedony and sard. Green chalcedony became the celebrated jaspis or jasper of the Greeks and Romans. Amethyst, which is rock crystal tinged more or less purple by oxide of iron was used by every nation of antiquity, while sardonyx was also in request. The Romans, who after the Augustan era invented the cameo, preferred the onyx, because of its dark and white layers, which throw out in bold relief a white head, say, against a black background.

As to the early subjects engraved on these stones it is apparent that the chief object of the gem, whether cylinder, cone or scarabeus, was that of a talisman to conciliate the favour of the deity whose image or symbol was portrayed. When the stone became more intended for a signet, the deities and sacred animals made place, in the reign of Alexander, for portraits, although heads, single figures, and animals were still in use. The Greeks also introduced the wearing of the signet on the finger-ring. With Augustus portrait engraving became common, his own portrait being used as the State-seal. In the later Roman times, mythology furnished many subjects.

The Museum possesses a wonderfully complete collection, which its first President,’ John Taylor Johnston, purchased from the Rev. C. W. King, of Trinity College, Cambridge, a distinguished authority upon antique gems. This gift has since been amplified, so that the glyptic art of the lapidary is well covered, and all that has been said is amply illustrated by one or more specimens. From among the wealth of gems we may especially note :

A cameo representing a Nereid riding upon a Triton, which is a fine example of cameo cutting. The figures bear a close resemblance to some in the reliefs from the great altar at Pergamon, and must date from the Hellenistic period.

A Mykenaean gem of onyx is lenticular in shape with an intaglio design of two bulls lying down. It is a characteristic specimen of gem cutting of Mykenaean art (1600-1400 B. C.). Its greatest diameter is 7/8 inches.

The figure of a flying Nike, of chalcedony, the head, arms and wings being missing, is an exquisite example of freehand cutting in hard material. The artist has taken advantage of the opaque quality of chalcedony by making the parts of the drapery which are clear of the figure much thinner than the body, so that when held against the light the figure itself is clearly and solidly silhouetted, and the flying drapery rendered translucent. It is of the late Greek or Roman period, and measures 2 7/8 in. in height.

Gem cutting is in a measure related to coin cutting. All the attractions which coins have for the numismatists may not have an appeal for us. Their scarcity, their imperfection, the peculiar conditions of their issue may be passed by, since we study these small disks principally with an eye for their beauty of design and execution. In the thousands of coins which the Museum has gradually acquired, we will find this quest amply gratified. The glyptic art of coins may be studied as it was practised in Syria, Greece and Rome, Egypt, Arabia, East India and Japan. Byzantine, Cufic and Chinese coins all offer interesting features. For the art of the coinmaker, as of the medallist, may well be called Sculpture in miniature. The low relief in extremely small compass enforces even more than in miniature painting the perfection of draughtsmanship. The greatest artists have given themselves to the engraving of medals, coins, dies, etc. To mention Saint-Gaudens as an example in this connection is to indicate the importance attached to this branch of art.

The Greeks took pains to exhibit in their coinage the best expression of their art. The Romans introduced the adaptation of these metal disks to the conferring of honour, or to serve as souvenirs, aside from their use as currency. In the Renaissance this custom was generally followed, Vittore Pisano, Matteo de’ Pasti, and Pastorino being among the most famous names of medallists that occur. In the 17th century the art attained great popularity in the Netherlands, where not a single event above the ordinary passed without a medal being engraved in commemoration.

When in the 18th century the screwpress was invented, whereby thousands of medals could be struck from one die, there was still greater incentive given, and it is known that Napoleon had more than a thousand medals struck to commemorate the events of his life. Many of these are in this collection, together with some by the most noted French medallists Oscar Roty, Alexandre Charpentier, and by other modern workers. Further examples are found among the medals and other testimonials of Cyrus W. Field, given him in honour of laying the Atlantic Cable. The decorations of the Imperial Orders of Japan, in gold, silver and bronze; several of these jewelled, and most of them enamelled, also illustrate the subject.

The artistry displayed in the embellishment of watch cases, by engraving, enamel, encrustation with jewels — the wealth of invention lavished upon them, has always had a strong appeal to the collector of gems.

The invention of the coil-spring at the end of the 15th century, which did away with the weights, soon led to the manufacture of pocket-clocks, called watches, from the Saxon waecca, to wake. The first practicable watches were made by Peter Hele, of Nürnberg in 1490, and were called Nürnberg eggs, on account of their shape. In the time of Queen Elizabeth watches were in common use, and made in various designs, such as crosses, skulls, acorns, pears, purses, and other shapes. The most celebrated watch makers of this period were Andreas Heinlein of Nürnberg, Finelly at Aix, and John Limpard and Bougeret in London. An engraver and designer of the latter part of the 16th century, Theodore de Bey, had a great influence on the ornamentation of watch cases.

The various methods of decorating watches are well illustrated in the collections of Mrs. George A. Hearn, and in the Drexel and Sternberger collections. We find here beautiful specimens of repousse, enamelled, engraved, chased cases, as well as those watches which were enclosed in artfully wrought mandolins, butterflies, beetles, lyres, etc.

Fans belong to those articles de vertu, which may well be classed among preciosa for their artistic daintiness. They were known to the ancients, and played a great part in the ceremonies of the Oriental nations. The flabellifer or fan-holder of the Romans was equal in importance with the standard-bearer.

The 18th century was the century of the fan. It was a sentimental and voluptuous century that recalled the Olympian goddesses to brighten the refined sweetness of its intimate and joyous life. Its spirit is reflected in the fans, as it is in the songs of Rolli, the plays of Metastasio, the flowing tunes of Pergolesi and Tomelli. Especially in France, where then politics, letters and manners scored their greatest triumphs, the artistic fan was produced in the most graceful and delightful examples. It was decorated with pearls, and spangles, and painted scenes of gallantry, many inspired by Watteau and Fragonard.

The folding fan, the small and fragile instrument of feminine grace, such as we know it to-day, came originally from China. The sticks forming the frame were made of metal, tortoise shell, ivory, mother-of-pearl, or lacquered wood, in innumerable designs of cutting, carving and engraving. The paper, linen, cambric or lace spread over the sticks was painted, or embroidered, or decorated in some other fashion. The greatest artists have produced exquisite fan paintings, as Lebrun, Boucher, Watteau, Baudry, Ingres, Isabey, and a host of others.

The most interesting fans to collectors are those known as Vernis-Martin. A carriage painter, named Martin, who flourished in 1745, produced a varnish which equalled in hardness and durability Chinese lacquer, thereby fixing permanently exquisite watercolours on the thin ivory surfaces, and the simple words vernis par Martin became highly prized. In the Miss Lazarus collection a fine example of the Vernis-Martin fan may be seen, as well as a number of other 18th century styles.

But if the women have their articles de vertu, the men are not behind as they put a little box to their nose and sniff up a thousand delightful dreams. These snuff-boxes demand the art of the cutting of precious stones, of goldsmith and silver-smith, of polishing, varnishing, and every manner of wood and ivory, horn and tortoise shell work. It may be one of Vienna porcelain, mounted in gold, with a cover painted by Smart or by Cosway. It may be a box by Petitot, that rare and excellent miniaturist. If so, it will gleam no doubt with precious stones. Or by Joaquet, the man who in 1736 made plaques of onyx and cornelian, and other hard stones, and enclosing them in most elegant gold cases, made snuff-boxes better than they were made at Dresden. Such cunning workman-ship was displayed by the makers. There was Speth, the German, who made masterpieces of lapis-lazuli, mounted in gold ; Weiland, with repousse silver work ; Jouache, with parcel-gilt silver. Or we may find a box with battlepieces painted by van Blarenberg, or flowers painted by Christiaan van Poi, of Haarlem. Think of the malachite boxes in gold mounts, of the Louis Seize style; or shell-shaped boxes of rock crystal in fluted gold mounts of Louis Quinze order; or gold boxes covered with Vernis-Martin; or boxes with stained mother-of-pearl panels made by Drais, of Paris, and painted by Degault.

Among those in the collection of snuff-boxes at the Museum you will recognize some from this description.