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Meissen figure of Harlequin

Meissen figure of Harlequin

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TITLE: Meissen figure of Harlequin
MAKER: Meissen Manufactory
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: ceramic, porcelain, hard paste (overall material)
MEASUREMENTS: 5½" 14 cm.
PLACE MADE: Meissen, Saxony, Germany
SUBJECT: The Hans Syz Collection
Domestic Furnishing
Industry and Manufacturing
CREDIT LINE: Hans C. Syz Collection
ID NUMBER: 1987.0896.30
(DATA SOURCE: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)
MARKS: Crossed swords in underglaze blue.
PURCHASED FROM: E. Pinkus, New York, 1943.
This figure 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.
Peter Reinicke (1715-1768) modeled this figure of Harlequin from the Italian Comedy series in about 1745. Meissen produced many versions of Harlequin as a solitary figure or in figure groups. This figure is based on the engraving by François Joullain (1697-1778) in which Harlequin is depicted masked with his thumbs in his belt and with a slapstick supported in his left hand. There are several variations of this figure, but it is an attitude that many people would recognize instantly as Harlequin.
Johann Adolf II Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels commissioned a set of Italian Comedy figures for table decoration in 1743. The Meissen sculptors Johann Joachim Kändler (1706-1775), Johann Friedrich Eberlein (1695-1749), and Peter Reinicke (1711-1768) collaborated on the project. The Meissen sculptors based their Italian Comedy figures for the Duke of Weissenfels on engravings by François Joullain (1697-1778) and Jacques Callot (1592-1635) in Louis Riccoboni’s (1676-1753) Histoire du Théâtre Italien (History of the Italian Theater) published in Paris in 1728. Born in Modena as Luigi Riccoboni, he followed his father onto the stage, but was not satisfied with the improvised and chaotic nature of the Italian comedy. He moved to Paris and started his own company which faltered at first until Riccoboni began to write his own more refined plays in French based on the Commedia dell’Arte comedic plots and stock characters. The plays were highly successful with Parisian audiences, and because often performed in public places the Italian Comedy reached a wide cross-section of society. The subject of the Italian comedy characters influenced painters, especially Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), who in turn influenced other French artists of the eighteenth century; his student Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Pater (1695-1736), Nicholas Lancret (1690-1743), François Boucher (1703-1770, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806).
Ten of the engravings used by the Meissen sculptors were by the Parisian engraver, print-seller, dealer and auctioneer, François Joullain (1697-1778) published in Riccoboni’s Histoire du Théâtre Italien.
Origins of the Commedia dell’Arte are in dispute, but the form of the Italian comedy that emerged in the sixteenth century was fundamentally one that grew from the carnival, from popular story telling, rustic romps, and improvised street theater. The characters did not change much, only the plots varied, but the Italian Comedy’s wider influence may be seen in Punch and Judy marionettes, the work of mime artists, in the movies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, in twentieth century modernist art and theater, and in contemporary situation comedies on TV.
Meissen figures and figure groups are usually sculpted in special modeling clay and then cut carefully into separate pieces from which individual molds are made. Porcelain clay is then pressed into the molds and the whole figure or group reassembled to its original form, a process requiring great care and skill. The piece is then dried thoroughly before firing in the kiln. In the production of complex figure groups the work is arduous and requires the making of many molds from the original model.
The figure is painted in overglaze enamel colors.
On the modeling and molding process still practiced today at Meissen see Alfred Ziffer, “‘…skillfully made ready for moulding…’ The Work of Johann Joachim Kaendler” in Pietsch, U., Banz, C., 2010, Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgeoisie 1710-1815, pp.61-67.
On the Italian Comedy see Meredith Chilton, 2001, Harlequin Unmasked: The Commedia dell’Arte and Porcelain Sculpture, pp.111; Lawner, L., 1998, Harlequin on the Moon: Commedia dell’Arte and the Visual Arts, and on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History see
Hans Syz, J. Jefferson Miller II, Rainer Rückert, 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp. 450-451.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
ca 1745
Meissen Manufactory
place made
Germany: Saxony, Meissen
Physical Description
hard-paste porcelain (overall material)
polychrome enamels (overall color)
Commedia del Arte figure (overall style)
overall: 5 1/2 in; 13.97 cm
overall: 5 7/16 in x 2 1/4 in x 2 1/4 in; 13.81125 cm x 5.715 cm x 5.715 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
collector/donor number
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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