MARKS: In underglaze blue the caduceus on saucer; large crossed swords on cup.
PURCHASED FROM: Adolf Beckhardt, The Art Exchange, New York, 1950.
This cup and saucer 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 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 sharp image like the Chinese cobalt blue painted porcelains. 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 cup and saucer have the glaze “dead-leaf” or “Capuchin brown” (Kapuzinerbraun) after the color of the habit in the order of Capuchin monks, on the exteriors - a color developed by Samuel Stölzel (1685-1737) using iron oxide. On their interiors the tea bowl and saucer have landscapes with a fisherman in his boat on a lake, and a house beside a willow tree. Scattered spays of flowers and a diaper pattern border complete the decoration.
The spout on the cup was used to pour tea into the saucer from which the beverage was then drunk, and this function was based on contemporary silver wares; tea cooled in the saucer more quickly. Other Meissen examples have two handles protruding like a pair of ears from opposite sides of the saucer.
The whip, or Asclepius, mark on the saucer is often called a “caduceus”, but that has two snakes entwined and is an emblem belonging to Hermes or Mercury. The emblem of Asclepius represents healing and has only one snake entwined around a staff. The mark was used at Meissen between 1721 and 1735.
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 standing as a guide for the painter and maintaining a relative standard in the design across all the components of a table service.
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. 232-233.
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