Meissen figure of a hurdy-gurdy player

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TITLE: Meissen figure of a man playing the hurdy-gurdy
MAKER: Meissen Manufactory
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: ceramic, porcelain, hard paste (overall material)
MEASUREMENTS: 5⅜" 13.7 cm.
PLACE MADE: Meissen, Saxony, Germany
DATE MADE: 1735-1740
SUBJECT: The Hans Syz Collection
Domestic Furnishing
Industry and Manufacturing
CREDIT LINE: Hans C. Syz Collection
ID NUMBER: 66.172
(DATA SOURCE: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)
MARK: ‘33’ impressed
PURCHASED FROM: E. Pinkus, New York, 1947.
This figure 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.
Modeled by Johann Joachim Kaendler (1706-1775) in the late 1730s or early 1740s the figure was copied by the Chelsea Manufactory in London in 1755. The figure represents a beggar playing the hurdy-gurdy. A semi-mechanical device, the hurdy-gurdy is a stringed instrument akin to the violin that dispenses with the bow, instead using a wooden wheel that rotates on a shaft turned by a hand crank. The sound produced by the wheel against the drone strings that play individual notes in harmony is akin to the reed pipes on a bagpipe. Using a keyboard with one hand while turning the wheel crank in the other, the musician plays the melody over the drone sound. The hurdy-gurdy was the first stringed instrument to exploit the keyboard, and it was played in Europe at least as far back as the twelfth century. It was one of the folk instruments played at country fairs and in the streets of towns and cities, far from the refined musical activities of the court until it later became fashionable for aristocratic men and women to play the instrument.
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 figure is painted in overglaze enamel colors. There is a companion figure of a beggar woman, and these figures were probably used in table decorations for the dessert course at court banquets.
On the hurdy-gurdy see the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments Vol. 2, 1984, pp.260-264; Ling, J., 1997, A History of European Folk Music, pp.148-151.
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, and pp. 351-352.
Hans Syz, J. Jefferson Miller II, Rainer Rückert, 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp. 422-423.
Currently not on view
date made
ca 1735-1740
Meissen Manufactory
Physical Description
polychrome (overall surface decoration color name)
ceramic, porcelain, hard-paste (overall material)
overall: 5 3/8 in; 13.6525 cm
overall: 5 7/16 in x 3 7/16 in x 5 1/8 in; 13.81125 cm x 8.73125 cm x 13.0175 cm
ID Number
catalog number
collector/donor number
accession number
Credit Line
Dr. Hans Syz
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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