In 1962, successful German building contractor Reiner Winkler bought his first ivory artwork, a small 15th-century Gothic panel of the Nativity that was once part of a diptych. And he fell in love with the medium. From that small French piece, only a few inches tall, Winkler began what would become the world’s largest private collection of ivory sculptures.
He focused on collecting works from the golden age of ivory carving: the 17th and 18th centuries. Winkler kept his collection close to him, first displaying the works in a cabinet in his living room along with porcelain and wooden figurines. As his ivory collection grew, he spread the works throughout his home, eventually moving the majority of them to a specially designed room he called “My cabinet of art and curiosities.”
But Winkler never intended to keep the ivory works to himself; he frequently invited art experts to see and study the pieces. At the end of his life, he gifted a large part of his collection to the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection in Frankfurt, Germany, which has now acquired most of his collection.
More than 200 of Winkler’s Baroque and Rococo ivory sculptures are now on display in the Liebieghaus’s recently opened “Splendid White” exhibition. Winkler had kept 21 of the works in his private collection up until he died in 2020. These are on public display for the first time in the exhibition, which is curated by Maraike Bückling, the Liebieghaus’s head of the Renaissance to neoclassicism collection.
English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Austrian, Dutch, and Flemish works, as well as two ivory pieces from India and China, are included in the show. The works range from sculptural reliefs, statuettes, groups of figures, and portrait medallions to tankards and ceremonial vessels.
Unbelievable Ivory Carving
A highlight of The Winkler Collection is “Fury on a Charging Horse” carved by an unknown artist known as the Master of the Furies. Winkler nearly missed out to a rival collector on buying the piece depicting a mythological Fury on horseback. In his memoirs he wrote: “Fortunately, the sculpture in a primitive wooden crate was very dirty and covered with numerous residues of glue. Lord Thomson’s representative … did not warm to it. … Suddenly I realized with shock that the piece was about to be knocked down—the hammer had already been raised. I drew attention to myself and got the sculpture.”
There’s a dynamism and emotional tension throughout the piece that makes viewing it both an uncomfortable and beautiful experience. The Master of the Furies expertly conveyed the screaming Fury’s limitless wrath, through its tense muscles and contorted facial features. The Fury’s anger almost throws it from the horse, which leaps so furiously over blades of grass or perhaps flames.
Throughout this sculpture, we can see why art collectors treasured ivory artworks like they would any rare, precious gems. Ivory’s silky-smooth surface, warm bright hue, fine veining, and flawlessness must’ve won their hearts.
Art collectors often kept ivory sculptures in curiosity cabinets, a tradition that developed in the 15th and 16th centuries, where learned men kept treasures that sparked conversation among their peers. They’d keep exotic, intriguing, and sometimes obscure objects with an emphasis on the natural world, such as shells, coconuts, scientific instruments, and fine snuff boxes decorated with semiprecious stones, to name a few. Some pieces were souvenirs they brought back with them from their European Grand Tour. At court, the highest ranking artists made pieces for these cabinets and were called “cabinet artists.”
The Art of Ivory Carving
Since the Stone Age, artists have used ivory for art. Works in The Reiner Winkler Ivory Collection, made between the 16th and 18th centuries, did not contribute to endangering elephant populations.
A mature elephant’s tusk can be as long as 9 feet, 10 inches and weigh up to 154 pounds. The tusk’s structure, with its hollow root and hard tip, dictated the works that could be made. Carvers created their designs to fit the size and shape of a tusk, which took a lot of skill, or if their design didn’t fit the size and shape of the tusk, carvers could add other pieces of ivory to the work to complete their sculpture.
According to The Metropolitan Museum of Art website, ivory carvers used the tip of the tusk to create sculptures in the round, and they sliced the hollow end part to make sculptural reliefs. Carvers also took advantage of the hollow root to make vessels, and they even used a lathe to create ivory objects much like woodturning.
Carvers enjoyed African ivory’s hard yet elastic qualities (due to fine crosshatching at the molecular level), which meant that they could chisel out fine details without weakening or splintering their work. For instance, they could carve fine facial features such as wrinkles to make idealized portraits more believable.
Some Types of Ivory Art
Ivory carvers created designs that were inspired by other artworks, particularly paintings and small bronzes.
Baroque artists created idealized portraits depicting the character and social standing of their subjects. Writers and philosophers such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau wore unusual costumes in their portraits. Notable personalities were shown in profile as per the ancient tradition of displaying portraits on coins and medals.
The Vatican often gave portraits of the pope as gifts to princes when they became Catholic. An ivory portrait of Pope Clement XI could be an example of such a gift, although that hasn’t been confirmed. Around 1710, an unknown artist in Rome carved the piece with great skill, nearly filling the whole space, right up to the edge.
David Le Marchand’s early 18th-century portrait of Charles Marbury, a man we know little about, shows the same level of skill. He depicted Marbury as a fine gentleman wearing a cloak and a well-groomed wig with each curl tamed to perfection.
Biblical subjects made to bring the viewer closer to God dominate Winkler’s collection. Some of those works show scenes from the Old Testament; others show the life of Christ, the saints and their martyrdom, or allegorical works showing the transience of life on earth.
Baroque artists often depicted “Maria Immaculata” (Mary of the Immaculate Conception) atop a globe while crushing a serpent that represents evil and the original sin.
According to the exhibition catalog, the 17th-century ivory sculptural relief “St. Mary Magdelene, Penitent” echoes the composition of small private devotional works often carved in boxwood or pearwood. However, the ivory piece is unusual due to the unknown artist’s use of jewelry and colored paint, gold leaf, and metal powder to adorn and honor the divine work.
In the heavenly sculptural relief titled “The Annunciation of Mary,” by 18th-century French carver Jean-Antoine Belleteste, the ivory looks solid but as delicate as chalk. Belleteste must have caressed the ivory’s surface with his chisel to make such a fine, transcendent work.
The “Splendid White” exhibition provides an outstanding overview of the beauty, virtuosity, and wide variety of Baroque and Rococo ivory art while also highlighting superb small sculptures in general.
Winkler carried on the Renaissance tradition of curiosity cabinets by collecting his own “cabinet of art and curiosities.” Now visitors to the the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection who see his collection can enjoy that tradition too.
The “Splendid White” exhibition at the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection in Frankfurt, Germany, runs until Jan. 8, 2023. To find out more, visit Liebieghaus.de