Meissen figure group of Leda and the Swan

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TITLE: Meissen figure group of Leda and the swan
MAKER: Meissen Manufactory
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: ceramic, porcelain, hard paste (overall material)
MEASUREMENTS: 6½" 16.5 cm
OBJECT NAME: Figure group
PLACE MADE: Meissen, Saxony, Germany
DATE MADE: 1750-1760
SUBJECT: The Hans Syz Collection
Domestic Furnishing
Industry and Manufacturing
CREDIT LINE: Hans C. Syz Collection
ID NUMBER: 1992.0427.15
(DATA SOURCE: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)
MARK: Crossed swords in underglaze blue.
PURCHASED FROM: Adolf Beckhardt, The Art Exchange, New York, 1943.
This figure group is from the Smithsonian’s Hans Syz Collection of Meissen 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.
Leda was Queen of Sparta, the wife of King Tyndareus. The god Zeus, inclined to act on his passions for mortal women, took the form of a swan and seduced Leda on the same night that she conceived two children by her mortal husband Tyndareus. By Zeus, the progeny of one egg were the twins Castor and Polydeuces, or in another version of the legend, Polydeuces and Helen, while by Tyndareus, Leda bore Castor and Clytemnestra. Her twin sons became known as the Dioskouri and they joined the Argonauts led by Jason. Represented in the night sky they are the stars Castor and Pollux. Helen and Clytemnestra were the wives of heroes in the Trojan War, Menelaus and Agamemnon.
The subject of Leda and the swan has the potential for erotic depiction in both the visual and literary arts, but in the figure group modeled by Johann Friedrich Eberlein (1696-1749) the erotic potential is implied lightly. Erotic and pornographic subjects in porcelain objects tend to appear on the underside of snuff box lids, in small objects that could be concealed easily in a pocket, or the interior of a bourdelou used only in private apartments.
Johann Friedrich Eberlein (1696-1749) modeled this group of Leda placing a flower wreath around the swan’s neck while a putto watches from her side with sly curiosity.
Meissen figures and figure groups are usually sculpted in special modeling clay and then carefully cut into separate pieces from which individual molds are made. Porcelain clay is then pressed into the molds and the whole figure or group reassembled to its original form, a process requiring great care and skill. The piece is then dried thoroughly before firing in the kiln. In the production of complex figure groups the work is arduous and requires the making of many molds from the original model.
The group is painted in overglaze enamel colors and gold.
On the modeling and molding process still practiced today at Meissen see Alfred Ziffer, “‘…skillfully made ready for moulding…’ The Work of Johann Joachim Kaendler” in Pietsch, U., Banz, C., 2010, Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgeoisie 1710-1815, pp.61-67.
On Leda see Grafton, A., Most, G.W., Settis, S., eds. 2010, The Classical Tradition, p. 519.
Hans Syz, J. Jefferson Miller II, Rainer Rückert, 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp. 436-437.
Currently not on view
date made
ca 1750-1760
Meissen Manufactory
place made
Deutschland: Sachsen, Meissen
Physical Description
hard-paste porcelain (overall material)
polychrome enamels and gold (overall color)
figure group (overall style)
overall: 6 1/2 in; 16.51 cm
overall: 6 5/16 in x 5 13/16 in x 4 1/4 in; 16.03375 cm x 14.76375 cm x 10.795 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
collector/donor number
See more items in
Home and Community Life: Ceramics and Glass
Domestic Furnishings
The Hans C. Syz Collection
Meissen Porcelain: The Hans Syz Collection
Data Source
National Museum of American History


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