Clare Le Corbeiller, snuff boxes and other things at the Met

I always admire people to give their lives to an institution. Clare Le Corbeiller did this, dedicating her scholarship to the decorative arts.

Her short essay and catalog were my primary sources in my snuff box research, and I thought that parts from the short essay were worth sharing. I suppose that even with the information the essay provides, it doesn’t quite explain my interest in them. (I think a better explanation stems from my being a nerd and a sucker for gold, opulent things). But reading things like this make me appreciate the history of these objects and their place today at the Met. Here is a link to some of their snuffboxes: http://tiny.cc/u1yt9

One interesting innovation was that towards the end of the century, people started making snuffboxes that you could re-fit. Instead of buying a hefty piece of gold again, you could change panels–from stones to portraits, etc to stay up to date. Does this remind anyone else of cell phone covers?

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An object of use, luxury, and superb craftsmanship: the gold box in the eighteenth century was all of these. It was by definition a snuff box, although it often held jewels, money, or even a scroll conferring the freedom of the city. Conventionally it was oblong, circular, or oval, but the Duchess of Orleans owned a gondola-shaped snuff box and Madame de Pompadour one in the form of a cat. Some boxes were made entirely of gold–polishes, matted, chased, engraved, and even tinted. On others, the gold was set off by enameling. Figures or still lifes in bright opaque colors were painted directly onto the gold surface (en plein), trails of vines and flowers were carved out of the surface, the spaces filled with shimmering translucent shades of blue and green (basse taille). Other boxes were little more than gold frames fitted with panels of another material: hardstones, porcelain, lacquer, mother-of-pearl, and miniature paintings were all used in their design.

The snuff box was an eighteenth-century phenomenon, the counterpart for its time of the pendant jewels of the Renaissance and the Easter eggs and jeweled accessories by Faberge in the nineteenth century. It came into being in the early 1700s when snuff-taking became socially acceptable. It began to go out of favor a hundred years later. During that century the Parisian goldsmiths and retail merchants (marchands merciers) set a standard of craftsmanship and imagination that prevailed throughout western Europe. Because the snuff box was essentially an element of costume, its style changed as often as fashions do, and commissions from the French court and nobility alone insured a steady, demanding market for the newest designs.

Most of these changes in taste are reflected in the boxes of the Wrightsman Collection…