Meissen red stoneware head of Vitellius

MARKS: None.
PURCHASED FROM: Hans E. Backer, London, England, 1947.
This miniature portrait head 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 New York collector and 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.
This portrait head of Vitellius was made in red stoneware, a very hard and dense type of ceramic similar in appearance to the Chinese Yixing ceramics which inspired their imitation at Meissen. This object, however, refers to European sculptural representation in the classical style. The Emperor Vitellius ruled the Roman Empire for less than a year and was assassinated in the Forum in Rome in AD 69. He was the last of the undistinguished Four Emperors, all of whom met violent deaths in the year 68 to 69 AD. Vitellius was a man of arbitrary cruelty and prodigious gluttony. It is now thought that the portrait represents a high official in the Emperor Hadrian’s court.
Red stoneware, enriched with iron oxides, preceded porcelain in the Dresden laboratory where physicist, mathematician, and philosopher, Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus (1651-1708) and alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719) experimented with raw materials fused by solar energy amplified through a burning glass. Success in red stoneware was an important step towards development of porcelain.
Paul Heermann (1673-1732) was probably the Dresden sculptor who modeled this piece. He was a notable artist who worked in ivory and marble, but also completed models for the Meissen manufactory in the very early years of 1708-1710. He was the nephew of Johann Georg Heermann, and both men worked in the manner of the baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).
On the portrait bust of Vitellius see
Hans Syz, J. Jefferson Miller II, Rainer Rückert, 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection, pp. 34-35.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
Meissen Manufactory
Physical Description
monochrome, rust (overall surface decoration color name)
ceramic, stoneware, refined (overall material)
overall: 4 in; 10.16 cm
place made
Deutschland: Sachsen, Meissen
ID Number
catalog number
collector/donor number
accession 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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