MARKS: Crossed swords in underglaze blue.
PURCHASED FROM: The Art Exchange, New York, 1963.
This leaf dish 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 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 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.
Early in Meissen’s history Johann Friedrich Böttger’s team searched for success in underglaze blue painting in imitation of the Chinese and Japanese prototypes in the Dresden collections. Böttger’s porcelain, however, was fired at a temperature higher than Chinese porcelain or German stoneware. As in China, the underglaze blue pigment was painted on the clay surface before firing, but when glazed and fired the cobalt sank into the porcelain body and ran into the glaze instead of maintaining a clear image like the Chinese originals. The Elector of Saxony and King of Poland Augustus II was not satisfied with the inferior product. Success in underglaze blue painting eluded Böttger’s team until Johann Gregor Höroldt (1696-1775) appropriated a workable formula developed by the metallurgist David Köhler (1673-1723). Success required adjustment to the porcelain paste by replacing the alabaster flux with feldspar and adding a percentage of porcelain clay (kaolin) to the cobalt pigment. Underglaze blue painting became a reliable and substantial part of the manufactory’s output in the 1730s.
The “rock and bird” pattern seen on this leaf dish was adapted by the Meissen manufactory from Japanese porcelain models made in Arita. Japanese enamel painters on porcelain imitated Chinese designs, but also transformed them into a decorative style informed by Japanese painting schools. Several European porcelain manufactories imitated Meissen’s imitation of the Japanese prototype of a flying bird and flowering tree beside a rock. The double loops circling the rim of the dish are common to many of the objects with the “rock and bird” pattern.
The shape of the Meissen leaf dish is based on a Chinese brush washer made in milky white blanc de chine fired in the Dehua kilns in Fujian Province, although the Meissen version is more open in form with a larger twig-shaped handle that is easier to hold. In China the washers were made for the use of scholars who practiced calligraphy, but it is likely that the Dehua brush washers were made for students or for ornament as Dehua porcelain was not particularly esteemed by the Chinese intellectual elite. It was, however, much admired in early eighteenth-century Europe, and the Dresden collection is one of the largest outside China. Dehua kilns are well-known for figurative pieces, and early Meissen statuary made in Bottger porcelain included molded copies from the royal collection in Dresden.
Underglaze blue painting requires skills similar to a watercolor artist. There are no second chances, and once the pigment touches the clay or biscuit-fired surface it cannot be eradicated easily. Many of Meissen’s underglaze blue designs were, and still are, “pounced” onto the surface of the vessel before painting. Pouncing is a long used technique in which finely powdered charcoal or graphite is allowed to fall through small holes pierced through the outlines of a paper design, thereby serving as a guide for the painter and maintaining a relative standard in the component parts of Meissen table services.
On Dehua porcelain see Kerr, R., Ayers, J., 2002, Blanc de Chine: Porcelain from Dehua, with the contribution by Eva Stroeber, Dehua Porcelain in the Collection of Augustus the Strong in Dresden.
On underglaze blue painting at Meissen see Pietsch, U., Banz, C., 2010, Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgoisie 1710-1815, pp. 22-23.
J. Carswell, 1985, Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and its impact on the Western World.
Hans Syz, J. Jefferson Miller II, Rainer Rückert, 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp. 250-251.
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