Meissen plate

MARKS: "22" impressed.
PURCHASED FROM: E. Pinkus Antiques, New york, 1970.
This plate is part of the Smithsonian’s Hans Syz Collection of European Porcelain. Dr. Syz (1894-1991) began his collection in the early years of World War II, when he purchased eighteenth-century Meissen table wares from the Art Exchange run by the New York dealer Adolf Beckhardt (1889-1962). Dr. Syz, a Swiss immigrant to the United States, collected Meissen porcelain while engaged in a professional career in psychiatry and the research of human behavior. He believed that cultural artifacts have an important role to play in enhancing our awareness and understanding of human creativity and its communication among peoples. His collection grew to represent this conviction.
The invention of Meissen porcelain, declared over three hundred years ago early in 1709, was a collective achievement that represents an early modern precursor to industrial chemistry and materials science. The porcelains we see in our museum collections, made in the small town of Meissen in Germany, were the result of an intense period of empirical research. Generally associated with artistic achievement of a high order, Meissen porcelain was also a technological achievement in the development of inorganic, non-metallic materials.
Underglaze blue as seen on this plate was a challenge for the Meissen manufactory’s laboratory. Cobalt blue is one of few colors derived from metal oxides that can withstand high temperatures without vanishing, and for several centuries the German stoneware tradition used cobalt pigments to ornament vessels and tiles. However, firing porcelain at a much higher temperature meant that the oxide became unstable, causing it to bleed into the glaze, losing definition in the design. The blue color at Meissen was not pleasing either, especially in comparison to the bright blues characteristic of the most prized Chinese blue and white porcelain so much desired in the West.
The production of cobalt blue pigments (blaufarben) was one of the major metal and mineral industries of Saxony, so it was particularly frustrating to the Meissen team when faced with a problem that took many years to resolve. Mined since the early sixteenth century in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) near Dresden, cobalt became a major source of blue pigments in Europe. Found combined with other metals and semi-metals – nickel, iron, copper, bismuth and arsenic – cobalt salts, after smelting and separation, were then processed into smalt, a pigment used by painters, and zaffer, a preparation used in enamel and glass production. However, neither of these pigments was suitable for underglaze painting on porcelain.
So keen was Augustus II, the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, to have underglaze blue decorated porcelain that he set an award of 1000 thalers for anyone who met with success in securing a reliable blue color. For many years the metallurgist David Köhler (1683?-1723), a member of the original team at Meissen, worked on the problem. So did Samuel Stölzel and two painters, Johann Georg Mehlhorn (c. 1671-1735) and Conrad Hunger (dates unknown) who received 300 thalers each when they presented the Elector with underglaze blue porcelain of rather mediocre quality. Köhler improved the stability of the pigment, but when he died in 1723, and when feldspar replaced alabaster in the porcelain body itself, further difficulties arose that were finally resolved in the late 1720s with a fine blue pigment on a whiter porcelain body. (Pietsch, U., Triumph of the Blue Swords, 2008, p.22)
This plate, produced in about 1740 when the manufactory had underglaze blue well under control, features the so-called ‘Zwiebelmuster’ or ‘onion’ pattern, probably introduced in this form in the late 1720s. It has long been assumed that the 'onion' pattern was a copy of a Chinese protoype, but it was a Meissen design with several variations based on Chinese motifs.(Pietsch,U., Triumph of the Blue Swords, 2010, p. 245). To ensure a consistent standard in the production of table services the ‘onion’ patterns were first ‘pounced’ onto the surface of the porcelain, leaving a traceable design for the painters to follow, a practice that continues at Meissen today.
Meissen’s blue and white ‘onion’ pattern was immensely successful, and modified versions are still in production. Underglaze blue painted in imitation of Meissen porcelains were produced at many European porcelain manufactories during the eighteenth century, and they became the preferred domestic choice for those who could afford to buy them. Consumers still find blue and white pottery, porcelain, and china attractive and desirable for everyday use in the home.
On underglaze blue painting at Meissen see Pietsch, U., Banz, C., 2010, Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgoisie 1710-1815, pp. 22-23.
Carswell, J., 1985, Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and its impact on the Western World.
Syz, H., Rückert, R., Miller, J. J. II., 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection, pp 242-243.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
ca 1740
Meissen Manufactory
Physical Description
ceramic, hard-paste porcelain (overall material)
painted in underglaze cobalt blue (overall color)
Meissen East Asian pattern (overall style)
overall: 10 cm; 3 15/16 in
place made
ID Number
collector/donor number
accession number
catalog number
The Hans C. Syz Collection
Industry & Manufacturing
Domestic Furnishings
See more items in
Home and Community Life: Ceramics and Glass
The Hans C. Syz Collection
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Hans C. Syz Collection
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