Underglaze blue oval box and cover

MARKS: Crossed swords and two dots connected with a line in underglaze blue.
PURCHASED FROM: The Art Exchange, New York, 1965.
This oval box is from 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 German Jewish collector and New York dealer Adolf Beckhardt (1889-1962), formerly of Frankfurt-am-Main. 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 the German States, 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.
Early in Meissen’s history Johann Friedrich Böttger’s team searched for success in underglaze blue painting in imitation of the Chinese and Japanese prototypes in the Dresden collections. Böttger’s porcelain, however, was fired at a temperature higher than Chinese porcelain or German stoneware. As in China, the underglaze blue pigment was painted on the clay surface before firing, but when glazed and fired the cobalt sank into the porcelain body and ran into the glaze instead of maintaining a sharp image like the Chinese originals. The Elector of Saxony and King of Poland Augustus II was not satisfied with the inferior product. Success in underglaze blue painting eluded Böttger’s team until Johann Gregor Höroldt (1696-1775) appropriated a workable formula developed by the metallurgist David Köhler (1673-1723). Success required adjustment to the porcelain paste by replacing the alabaster flux with feldspar and adding a percentage of porcelain clay (kaolin) to the cobalt pigment. Underglaze blue painting became a reliable and substantial part of the manufactory’s output in the 1730s.
There are six paw feet on the base of the box, and it is decorated on both the cover and container with motifs characteristic of the “onion” pattern. Pomegranates that were much later described as ‘onions’ can be seen on the box, and on the cover is the large chrysanthemum associated with this pattern which was a Meissen design based on motifs from Chinese prototypes. A modified "onion" pattern is still in production today.
Underglaze blue painting requires skills similar to a watercolor artist. There are no second chances, and once the pigment touches the clay biscuit-fired surface it cannot be eradicated easily. Many of Meissen’s underglaze blue designs were, and still are, “pounced” onto the surface of the vessel before painting. Pouncing is a long used technique in which finely powdered charcoal or graphite is allowed to fall through small holes pierced through the outlines of a paper design, thereby serving as a guide for the painter and maintaining a relative standard in the component parts of Meissen table services.
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.
J. Carswell, 1985, Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and its impact on the Western World.
Hans Syz, J. Jefferson Miller II, Rainer Rückert, 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection, pp. 244-245.
Currently not on view
Object Name
box, oval
date made
Meissen Manufactory
Physical Description
painted in underglaze cobalt blue (overall color)
ceramic; hard-paste porcelain (overall material)
overall: 3 5/8 in x 6 1/2 in; 9.2075 cm x 16.51 cm
Place Made
Deutschland: Sachsen, Meissen
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
collector/donor number
Domestic Furnishings
The Hans C. Syz Collection
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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