Meissen figure of a miner

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MARKS: Crossed swords in underglaze blue.
PURCHASED FROM: Adolf Beckhardt, The Art Exchange, New York, 1944.
This figure of a miner is part of 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 psychoanalysis 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.
Saxony’s miners held a high status in comparison to other laboring communities, mining silver, lead, copper, cobalt, and bismuth out of the rich Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) in the south-west region of the Saxon State. The figure seen here represents a miner in his parade livery with an axe carried over his right shoulder. On his hat the emblem of crossed mining picks is painted in gold, and crossed swords - just like the mark on Meissen porcelains - are painted on his belt buckle. Miners worked hard rock to get at the ores, with water and toxic fumes their constant enemies. Smelters and furnace workers who processed the ores also belonged to the mining industry (bergbauindustrie), as did the surveyors responsible for mapping the complex underground seams of ore, and the engineers who built and worked the machinery that kept the mineshafts open.
The Meissen modelers Johann Joachim Kaendler (1706-1775) and Peter Reinicke (d. 1768) produced the original figure for this and other mining subjects. Kaendler, who joined Meissen in 1731 after working for the Dresden court sculptor Benjamin Thomae (1682-1751), developed a baroque style and a scale for porcelain figures that successfully exploited the nature of the material. The mining figures were based on prints from a publication by Christoph Weigel of Nuremberg, Die Abbildung und Beschreibung derer sämtlichen Berg-Wercks und Hütten Beamten und Bedienten nach ihrem gewöhnlichen Rang und Ordnung im behörigen Hütten-Habit [The representation and description of all the mining and metallurgy officials and their subordinates in appropriate livery according to their customary rank and order]. Mining personnel wore these garments at the elaborate parades that formed part of the court festivals held to celebrate anniversaries, betrothals, and weddings in the European court calendar. One of the most spectacular was the Saturn Festival held in 1719 to celebrate the marriage of Augustus II Elector of Saxony's son, the electoral prince Friedrich Augustus, to Princess Maria Josepha of Austria, the daughter of the Emperor Joseph I. (See Watanabe O'Kelly, H., Court Culture in Dresden: From Renaissance to Baroque, 2002).
It was the custom in court entertainments to decorate banqueting tables with figures made from sugar, and the design of these elaborate ornaments was the task of the court sculptors. When Kaendler took up his post as a modeler at Meissen he was quick to see that porcelain could add to or replace sugar in this function. This figurine was one among many in a series that depicted the work of miners, and collectively formed a table decoration on this theme.
The Meissen Manufactory uses the same techniques today to make individual figures and figure groups as it did in the eighteenth century. The original figure, sculpted in wax or modeler’s clay, is cut into smaller pieces from which plaster of Paris molds are taken. This miner is a relatively simple subject, but complex figure groups often require up to seventy separate molds. It is the job of the Meissen manufactory’s team of figure specialists to reassemble the figures from porcelain pressed into, and then released from the molds when still damp. The pieces are then stuck carefully in place and the complete figure group is dried slowly and evenly before firing. (See Pietsch, U. Triumph of the Blue Swords, 2010, pp. 61-67; pp.121-131).
Syz, H., Rückert, R., Miller, J. J. II., 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp. 440-441.
Currently not on view
date made
ca 1750
Meissen Manufactory
Physical Description
ceramic, porcelain, hard-paste (overall material)
polychrome enamels and gold (overall color)
baroque figure sculpture (overall style)
overall: 20 cm; 7 7/8 in
ID Number
catalog number
collector/donor number
accession number
Credit Line
Hans C. Syz Collection
See more items in
Home and Community Life: Ceramics and Glass
Industry & Manufacturing
Domestic Furnishings
The Hans C. Syz Collection
Data Source
National Museum of American History


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