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DAVID RONTGEN

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Originally appearing in Volume V23, Page 694 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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DAVID RONTGEN, sometimes called DAVID DE LUNEVILLE (1743-1807), German cabinet-maker, eldest son of Abraham Rontgen, was born at Herrenhag. In 1753 his,father migrated to the Moravian settlement at Neuwied, near Coblenz, where he established a furniture factory. He learned his trade in his father's workshop, and succeeded to the paternal business in 1772, when he entered into some kind of partnership with the clock-maker Kintzing. At that time the name of the firm appears already to have been well known, at all events in France; but it is a curious circumstance that although he is always reckoned as one of the little band of foreign cabinet-makers and workers in marquetry who, like Oeben and Riesener, achieved distinction in France during the superb floraison of the Louis Seize style, he never ceased to live at Neuwied, where apparently the whole of his furniture was made, and merely had a shop, or show-room, in Paris. We have, as it happens, a record of his first appearance there. The engraver Wille enters in his journal of August 30, 1774, that " M. Rontgen, celebre ebeniste, etabli a Nieuwied, pres de Coblenz, m'est venu voir, en m'apportant une lettre de recommandation de M. Zick, peintre a Coblenz . . . Comme M. Rontgen connaissait personne a Paris, je lui fus utile en lui enseignant quelques sculpteurs et dessinateurs dont it avait besoin." Rontgen was first and foremost an astute man of business and it is not improbable that the moving cause of this opening up of relations with Paris was the accession to the throne of Marie Antoinette, whose Teutonic sympathies were only too well known. Before very long she appointed him her ebenistemechanicien. He appears, indeed, to have acquired considerable favour with the queen, for on several occasions she took advantage of his journeys through Europe to charge him with the delivery of presents and of dolls dressed in the Paris fashions of the moment—they were intended to serve as patterns for the dressmakers—to her mother and her sisters. He appears at once to have opened a shop in Paris, but despite, and perhaps because of, the favour in which he was held at court, all was not plain sailing. The powerful trade corporation of the maitres-ebenistes disputed his right to sell in Paris furniture of foreign manufacture, and in 1780 he found that the most satisfactory way out of the difficulty was to get himself admitted a member of the corporation to which all his great rivals belonged. By this time he had attracted a good deal of attention by the introduction of a new style of marquetry, in which light and shade, instead of being represented as hitherto by burning, smoking or engraving the materials, were indicated by small pieces of wood so arranged as to create the impression of pietra dura. We have seen that Rontgen had been appointed ebeniste-mechanicien to Marie Antoinette, and the appointment is explained by his fondness for and proficiency in constructing furniture in which mechanical devices played a great part. The English cabinet-makers of the later eighteenth century often made what was called, with obvious allusion to its character, " harlequin furniture," especially little dressing-tables and washstands which converted into something else or held their essentials in concealment until a spring was touched. David was a past master in this kind of work, and unquestionably much of the otherwise inexplicable reputation he enjoyed among contemporaries who were head and shoulders above him is explained by his mechanical genius. The extent of his fame in this direction is sufficiently indicated by the fact that Goethe mentions him in Wilhelm Meister. He compares the box inhabited by the fairy during her travels with her mortal lover to one of Rontgen's desks, in which " at a pull a multitude of springs and latches are set in motion." For a desk of this kind Louis XVI. paid him 8o,000 livres. Outwardly it was in the form of a commode, its marquetry panels symbolizing the liberal arts. A personification of sculpture was in the act of engraving the name of Marie Antoinette upon a column to which Minerva was hanging her portrait. Above a riot of architectural orders was a musical clock (the work of the partner Kintzing), surmounted by a cupola representing Parnassus. The interior of this monumental effort, 11 ft. high, was a marvel of mechanical precision; it disappeared during the First Empire. Rontgen did not confine his activities to Paris, or even to France. It has been said that he travelled about Europe accompanied by furniture vans, and undoubtedly his aptitude as a commercial traveller was remarkable. He had shops in Berlin and St Petersburg, and himself apparently twice went to Russia. On one of these visits he sold to the Empress Catherine furniture to the value of 20,000 roubles, to which she added a personal present of 500o roubles and a gold snuff-box—in recognition, it would seem, of his readiness and ingenuity in surmounting a secretaire with a clock indicating the date of the Russian naval victory over the Turks at Cheshme, news of which had arrived on the previous evening. This suite of furniture is believed still to be in the Palace of the Hermitage, the hiding-place of so much remarkable and forgotten art. To the protection of the queen of France and the empress of Russia David added that of the king of Prussia, Frederick William II., who in 1792 made him a Commerzienrath and commercial agent for the Lower Rhine district. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars which so speedily followed, eclipsed Rontgen's star as they eclipsed those of so many other great cabinet-makers of the period. In 1793 the Revolutionary government, regarding him as an emigre, seized the contents of his show-rooms and his personal belongings, and after that date he appears neither to have done business in Paris nor to have visited it. Five years later the invasion of Neuwied led to the closing of his workshops; prosperity never returned, and he died half ruined at Wiesbaden on the 12th of February 1807. Rontgen was not a great cabinet-maker. His forms were often clumsy, ungraceful and commonplace; his furniture lacked the artistry of the French and the English cabinet-makers of the great period which came to an end about 179o. His bronzes were poor in design and coarse in execution—his work, in short, is tainted by commercialism. As a marqueteur, however, he holds a position of high distinction. His marquetry is bolder and more vigorous than that of Riesener, who in other respects soared far above him. As an adroit deviser of mechanism he fully earned a reputation which former generations rated more highly than the modern critic, with his facilities for comparison, is prepared to accept. On the mechanical side he produced, with the help of Kintzing, many long-cased and other clocks with ingenious indicating and registering apparatus. Rontgen delighted in architectural forms, and his marquetry more often than not represents those scenes from classical mythology which were the dear delight of the 18th century. He is well represented at South Kensington.
End of Article: DAVID RONTGEN
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