Meissen figure of a rhinoceros


MARKS: Crossed swords on unglazed foot.

PURCHASED FROM: Adolf Beckhardt, The Art Exchange, New York, 1944.

This rhinoceros is part of 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 collector and New York dealer Adolf Beckhardt (1889-1962), formerly of Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany. 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 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.

Few people had seen a rhinoceros in early eighteenth-century Europe, and this figure bears a close resemblance to Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut of an animal that was brought to Portugal in the sixteenth century. Dürer did not see the animal himself, but devised an image from descriptions, and possibly from sketches that reached Nuremberg in 1515. This rhinoceros, however, is more likely based on prints published to advertise "Clara", an Indian rhinoceros brought to Europe on a Dutch East India Company vessel, the Knappenhof, by Captain Douwemout van der Meer, who acquired Clara in Calcutta in 1741. Seeing the potential this extraordinary animal had for making money, Captain Douwemout exhibited Clara in many European cities, including Dresden in 1747. An engraving of the "Dutch" rhinoceros by Moritz Bodenehr (1665-1749), dated 1747, could have been the model for the Meissen figure seen here.

Johann Joachim Kaendler may have modeled this little figure, but in the 1730s he worked on an ambitious project for the Japanese Palace producing porcelain sculptures of native and exotic species held in the Elector of Saxony's menagerie in Dresden. Some of these works still extant are life size, and others are over four feet high; a rhinoceros sculpted to the size of a large dog, after Dürer’s version, still exists, probaly modeled by Gottlieb Kirchner.

Elector Augustus II commissioned over 500 animals and birds for the Japanese Palace, but it became clear that porcelain was not a suitable material for large-scale sculpture. When fired, even after adjustments to increase the strength of the material, the porcelain cracked open or slumped out of shape, and it was not possible to apply enamel color and risk another firing. Understanding the limits of the material, Kaendler turned to the development of small-scale porcelain figures of animals, birds, and human subjects, many of which are noteworthy for their fresh and lively expression across baroque and rococo styles.

Figurative sculpture in clays of many different kinds, have an ancient global history, and they can be highly informative items in our attempts to interpret cultures of the past. The invention of hard-paste porcelain at Meissen, and the work of the court sculptors employed in the manufactory, gave rise to a genre of figurative subjects that help us to interpret the court culture of European society much closer to us in time. The Meissen figures, imitated by other European porcelain manufacturers, influenced the style and repertoire of ceramic figurines, many of which are still in production today bearing a close or distant relationship to the originals.

On Clara's story see Rookmaaker, R. et al., Woodcuts and Engravings illustrating the journey of Clara, the most popular Rhinoceros of the eighteenth century, in Der Zoologische Garten: Zeitschrift für die gesamte Tiergärtnerei, 70. Band, Oktober 2000, Heft 5.

See T.H. Clarke, "The Rhinoceros in European Ceramics", in Kermik freunde der Schweiz, Mitteilungsblatt Nr. 89, November 1976, also available online at:

On Meissen animal sculpture see Wittwer, S., 2001, A Royal Menagerie: Meissen Porcelain Animals. For a wider historical and sociological survey that draws on animal imagery see Kalof, L., 2007, Looking at Animals in Human History.

Syz, H., Rückert, R., Miller, J. J. II., 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection, pp. 482-483.

Date Made: ca 17501750

Maker: Meissen Manufactory

Location: Currently not on view

Place Made: Germany

See more items in: Home and Community Life: Ceramics and Glass, The Hans C. Syz Collection, Industry & Manufacturing, Art, Domestic Furnishings


Exhibition Location:

Credit Line: Hans C. Syz Collection

Data Source: National Museum of American History

Id Number: CE.69.82Collector/Donor Number: 514Accession Number: 287702Catalog Number: 69.82

Object Name: figurine

Physical Description: ceramic, porcelain (overall material)polychrome enamels (overall color)baroque figure sculpture (overall style)Measurements: overall: 4 in; 10.16 cm


Record Id: nmah_1366096

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