Art at the DIANew Acquisitions

Dancers in Repose Edgar Degas
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Dancers in Repose (72.441) — Edgar Degas

Courtly Amber Casket

JCourtly Amber Casket

Courtly Amber Casket
Gottfried Wolffram, Danish; c.1695  

This amber casket with ivory reliefs was produced for a northern European court, most likely by Gottfried Wolffram, a sculptor of both ivory and amber active in Denmark and Germany at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century. It is the first piece of sculpted amber, once regarded to have mythical origins and magical powers, to enter the DIA's collection. Wolffram's art is generally made of, or adorned with, ivory reliefs that depict the Roman countryside, with a particular emphasis on perspective and elaborate detail. The DIA casket is adorned with five landscapes in ivory and many large amber plates consisting of oval and angular cabochons, which are engraved and foil-backed. A wood core, carefully conceived to assure the translucence of the engraved amber, stabilizes the fragile superstructure in amber and ivory. Inside, the casket is clad with red velvet, leaving open the plates with angular cabochons so that when the lid is raised, the interior is suffused with a golden light.

Wolffram was a highly paid amber and ivory carver who worked at the Danish court beginning in 1683. He had become King Christian V's ivory turner in 1691, but left Copenhagen after the king's death in 1699. Wolffram then traveled to Berlin, where he worked from 1702 to 1707 for the Prussian king Frederick I as the principal sculptor on the enigmatic Amber Room. After quarreling over his high salary demands with the master-builder of the Berlin castle, he returned to Copenhagen in 1707, where he remained until his death in 1716.

The casket's shape is inspired by works produced in Danzig (now Gdansk) toward the end of the seventeenth century. The combination of ivory and amber is typical of Danzig carvers, who were often trained to work with both treasured materials. Although it is not clear where Wolffram was born and trained, archival sources indicate that he may have been born in Denmark, and he frequently traveled to Danzig during his stay in Copenhagen. Certainly, the casket suggests that Wolffram received some artistic training in Danzig during a time when the city was considered the capital of amber and ivory carving.

The casket is the first amber and ivory attributed to Wolffram to enter an American museum collection and should be on view in the European Decorative Arts Court later this month.


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