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Meissen octagonal dish

Meissen octagonal dish

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TITLE: Meissen octagonal dish
MAKER: Meissen Manufactory
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: ceramic, porcelain (overall material)
MEASUREMENTS: D. 9⅜" 24.4cm
PLACE MADE: Meissen, Saxony, Germany
DATE MADE: 1729-1731
Domestic Furnishing
Industry and Manufacturing
CREDIT LINE: Hans C. Syz Collection
ID NUMBER: 1981.0702.22
(DATA SOURCE: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)
MARKS: Crossed swords in overglaze blue; “N=37/W” engraved (Johanneum mark).
PURCHASED FROM: Kitty Zeller, Zurich, Switzerland, 1956.
This 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 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 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.
The Meissen dish is a close copy of a Japanese prototype in the Dresden collections that depicts a story in the life of the Chinese historian and statesman of the Song Dynasty, Ssu-ma-Kuang (1009-1086). On the left of the plate Ssu-ma-Kuang (Shiba Onkō in Japanese) has just thrown a stone at a large pottery fish tub in which a young friend is drowning. As the water pours from the container a woman reaches down to lift the boy out.
The pattern was made initially for the Parisian merchant Rudolphe Lemaire who realized that Meissen imitations of Japanese porcelains were of such excellence that they could pass for the originals. Through the Saxon ambassador to France and later a director of the Meissen Manufactory, Carl Heinrich Count Hoym (1694-1731), and with at least more than a nod from Johann Gregor Höroldt, the manufactory’s director of the painting studio, Lemaire obtained Meissen porcelain decorated in the Kakiemon style for sale in Paris where Japanese porcelain was highly prized and more expensive than Meissen. Lemaire arranged matters so that the underglaze blue crossed swords mark was either omitted altogether, obscured by a gold pattern, or painted over the glaze in enamel and therefore removable, as was the case with this dish. This fraudulent activity began in 1729 and when it was discovered in 1731 Lemaire was arrested and expelled from Saxony, and Count Hoym was disgraced. Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland recovered most of the remaining items made at Meissen for Lemaire and placed them in the Japanese Palace in Dresden. It was the intention of the Saxon Elector and king of Poland, Augustus II, that the Meissen Manufactory should produce porcelain to equal the beauty of the Far Eastern product and make redundant the need to import more expensive wares from Japan and China, not in order to deceive, but to the advantage of the Saxon-Polish treasury.
Kakiemon is the name given to very white (nigoshida meaning milky-white) finely potted Japanese porcelain made in the Nangawara Valley near the town of Arita in the North-West of the island of Kyushu. The porcelain bears a characteristic style of enamel painting using a palette of translucent colors painted with refined assymetric designs attributed to a family of painters with the name Kakiemon. In the 1650s, when Chinese porcelain was in short supply due to civil unrest following the fall of the Ming Dynasty to the Manchu in 1644, Arita porcelain was at first exported to Europe through the Dutch East India Company’s base on the island of Dejima in the Bay of Nagasaki. The Japanese traded Arita porcelain only with Chinese, Korean, and Dutch merchants and the Chinese resold Japanese porcelain to the Dutch in Batavia (present day Jakarta), to the English and French at the port of Canton (present day Guangzhou) and Amoy (present day Xiamen). Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, obtained Japanese porcelain through his agents operating in Amsterdam who purchased items from Dutch merchants, and from a Dutch dealer in Dresden, Elizabeth Bassetouche.
In England the pattern on this dish became known as Hob in the Well which has nothing to do with the Chinese scholar Ssu-ma-Kuang. The Chelsea soft-paste porcelain manufactory in London imitated the pattern and the name Hob came from a popular comic opera of the time, Flora, adapted from a play written by Thomas Doggett in 1696 and titled The Country Wake. Hob, a farm boy is thrown into a well by the owner of a country estate and is “resurrected” from this fate by his family. He takes revenge on the lord of the manor, who believes Hob is dead, and he helps to release Flora from the clutches of this same cruel tyrant. Flora was performed at Covent Garden Theatre in London in 1730, in a production by John Rich who also produced John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera in 1728. The Country Wake is believed to be the first comic opera performed in Colonial America, in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1735.
For a detailed account of the Kakiemon style and its European imitators see Ayers, J., Impey, O., Mallet, J.V.G., 1990, Porcelain for Palaces: the fashion for Japan in Europe 1650-1750; Impey, O., Jörg, J. A., Mason, C., 2009, Dragons, Tigers and Bamboo: Japanese Porcelain and its Impact in Europe, the Macdonald Collection.
On the Hoym-Lemaire affair see Weber, J., 2013, Meissener Porzellane mit Dekoren nach ostasiatischen Vorbildern: Stiftung Ernst Schneider in Schloss Lustheim, Band I, and for more details about this pattern Band II, S.137-140.
On a revival of “Flora; or, Hob in the Well” performed in Charleston, South Carolina in 2010 see Michael Evenden “Flora’s Descent; or Hob’s Re-Re-Re-Resurrection” in Eighteenth-Century Studies Vol.44, Number 4, Summer 2011, pp. 565-567.
For examples of this particular pattern in a Japanese version as well as by Meissen and Chelsea see pp. 152,198,199. See also Pietsch, U., Banz, C., 2010, Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgoisie 1710-1815, pp. 252-253.
Jefferson Miller II, J., Rückert, R., Syz, H., 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp. 142-143.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
ca 1725-1730
Meissen Manufactory
place made
Germany: Saxony, Meissen
Physical Description
hard-paste porcelain (overall material)
polychrome enamels (overall color)
Kakiemon (overall style)
overall: 9 5/8 in; 24.4475 cm
overall: 1 3/4 in x 9 1/8 in x 9 1/8 in; 4.445 cm x 23.1775 cm x 23.1775 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
collector/donor number
Credit Line
Dr. Hans Syz
See more items in
Cultural 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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