The Cabinet of Art and Curiosity
European Cabinets of Art and Curiosity were places of universal learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Cabinets like these featured diverse objects–natural specimens (naturalia), great works of art (artificialia), scientific instruments (scientifica), and exotic curiosities (exotica)—representing the search for knowledge and illustrating humankind’s place in the universe. They were the museums of their time, offering visitors first-hand knowledge of the far-away world through objects they could see with their own eyes, and touch with their own hands.
The focus and scope of period Cabinets varied according to the interests and resources of the individual collectors. In the case of the Wadsworth’s twenty-first-century Cabinet, its nature is not defined by an individual from the seventeenth century but rather by a few twentieth-century collectors and the museum’s curatorial staff who acquired works that may have been in someone’s cabinet 250 years earlier.
The core of the collection, including the nautilus cups, ivories, glass, maiolica, and antiquities, were donated to the Wadsworth by financier J. Pierpont Morgan in 1917. Many of the ancient artifacts came from the artist and collector Henry Schnakenberg, and most of the natural specimens were donated by collector Peter Tillou especially for this installation. The paintings entered the collection at various times over the course of the last century. The objects specifically acquired by the Wadsworth for the Cabinet, include the narwhal and ivory Covered Cup, House Altar, Memento Mori skulls, rock crystal Goblet, Turned cups and case, bone Crucifixion, mother-of-pearl Powder Horn, and Goa stone with holder.
In September 2015 the Wadsworth opened its Cabinet of Art and Curiosity, which holds over 200 awe-inspiring objects filling an entire gallery. This immersive, interactive environment is free of object labels to provide an uninterrupted viewing experience. Visitors eager to delve deep can read the Field Guide, listen to a mobile tour, or use the digital touch screens in the gallery to create a personal, virtual Cabinet of Art and Curiosity and find detailed information about each fascinating object.
A forthcoming virtual tour of the Cabinet, funded by the French American Museum Exchange, will allow visitors from afar to experience the immersive environment digitally and draw connections to a Cabinet in the collection of the Musée des beaux-arts de Rennes.
Listen to a conversation between curators Linda Roth of the Wadsworth and Francois Coulon of Rennes about how this cabinet of curiosity was first imagined. The interview took place in Maastricht, The Netherlands, in March 2018.
See some of the objects by clicking the thumbnail images below, or explore by browsing the complete set of digital object labels.
The Wadsworth’s Cabinet
Cabinets of Art and Curiosity varied in both content and display, depending on the individual collector. This Cabinet is arranged into four thematic sections: Artistry, Belief, Antiquity, and Exploration, although many objects can fall into more than one section.
Expressions of human ingenuity and virtuosity were essential to a Cabinet of Art and Curiosity. Through the transformation of raw materials, such as nautilus shell, into masterful works of art, a dialogue between art and nature could be initiated. These objects seem to have no other purpose than to be admired. Usually quite small, they were meant to be picked up and inspected closely. Objects were studied deeply like books, sparking discussions between scholars, intellectuals, and Cabinet visitors.
In the seventeenth century, wonders and marvels were essential aspects of Christian belief. God was thought to demonstrate his divine presence through miracles. The Church itself avidly collected marvelous curiosities and naturalia, such as ostrich eggs, narwhal teeth, or crocodiles, to sometimes display in church interiors. In fact, many Cabinets of Art and Curiosity have their roots in the treasuries of the Roman Catholic Church. The relics of saints were often displayed in elaborate reliquaries made of precious material, such as gold, silver, or ivory.
Seventeenth-century scholars studied ancient artifacts with the same attention as natural specimens. Bronze sculptures, ceramic pots, glass vessels, coins, and gems from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome were part of many Cabinets. Egyptian antiquities were particularly popular, but seventeenth-century scholars often did not understand their meaning and purpose (hieroglyphs were not yet deciphered). For instance, the Head of a cat would have been identified as part of a simple idol of a cat. Today we know that the cat is actually a manifestation of the powerful goddess Bastet.
The late fifteenth through the sixteenth century is often called the Age of Exploration. Europeans traveling to Asia, Africa, and the New World brought back a variety of goods that were unfamiliar to people living in Europe. Shells, corals, stones, jewels, gold, featherworks, weapons, artifacts, and living species filled the ships returning from distant lands, frequently ending up in Cabinets of Art and Curiosity. Conquest and colonization followed in several parts of the world however, sometimes leading to unfair methods of acquiring these rarities.
This period also brought scientific discoveries and inventions. Some of these objects were displayed in Cabinets as examples of scientifica. The ability to measure time more accurately led to measuring devices combined with state-of–the-art automatons. The Lion Clock in the corner cabinet combines this new clock technology with mechanisms that make the lion’s mouth and eyes move. Such fanciful designs demonstrated human’s control over nature.
The Cabinet of Art and Curiosity was an important precursor of the modern museum. Cabinets of Art and Curiosity began to decline in the eighteenth century as more systematic approaches to collecting developed. Gradually, the diverse contents of the Cabinets were made into separate collections. A pivotal shift was the division of the arts and sciences. There was also a shift from the private domain of the individual collector to the public domain, in order to ensure that the collections of objects and the knowledge acquired by their study were more accessible and would have a lasting impact.
An example of a later Cabinet collection can be found at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, in Rennes, France. The collection was created by Christophe-Paul de Robien (1698–1756), an historian, naturalist, art collector, and president of the parliament of Brittany. Formed over the course of forty years, by the time of his death the collection numbered approximately 20,000 items, and included paintings and drawings, as well as rare plants, minerals, and shells, and scores of marvels from around the world. Robien made an encyclopedia of the collection, writing and drawing descriptions of each object. He wanted to form a local academy of art and science, and created the collection specifically with that in mind, but the dream was not realized before his death. A catalog of his non-European collections will be published in September 2020 and a catalogue of his European collection is planned for future years. You can find out more about the Robien cabinet at https://framemuseums.org/room-of-wonders/.
The Cabinet of Art and Curiosity has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Forthcoming virtual tour of the Cabinet of Art and Curiosity made possible by a grant from the French American Museum Exchange (FRAME).