Meissen figure of a woman playing the hurdy-gurdy

Meissen figure of a woman playing the hurdy-gurdy

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TITLE: Meissen figure of a young Tyrolean woman with a hurdy-gurdy
MAKER: Meissen Manufactory
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: ceramic, porcelain, hard paste (overall material)
MEASUREMENTS: 4⅞; 12.4 cm.
PLACE MADE: Meissen, Saxony, Germany
DATE MADE: 1736-1740
SUBJECT: The Hans Syz Collection
Domestic Furnishing
Industry and Manufacturing
CREDIT LINE: Hans C. Syz Collection
ID NUMBER: 1992.0427.02
(DATA SOURCE: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)
MARK: Crossed swords in underglaze blue.
PURCHASED FROM: Adolf Beckhardt, The Art Exchange, New York, 1941.
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 Germany, 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.
Small figures depicting people in their regional style of dress were part of the repertoire of porcelain subjects representing the folk practices of European peoples, usually dancing or making music. In court entertainments participants dressed themselves in costumes associated with people of a lower social class, maintaining for a short while the pretence of a life very different to their own, and the modeler Johann Joachim Kaendler (1706-1775) depicted these court fantasies in some of his figures and figure groups. This figure may have formed part of a table decoration when porcelain figures began to join those made of sugar or wax. For centuries, elaborate and ephemeral constructions made of sugar, wax and a mixture of other media decorated the dessert table at court banquets, and it was the court sculptors and confectioners who designed and made decorations tailored to the theme of the occasion.
This figure is recorded in Kaendler’s work book for July, 1736, as a “young Tyrolean woman, altered with the hurdy-gurdy and made good to mold” (Ein Tyroler Weibgen Verändert mit der Leyer und zum abformen tüchtig gemacht.), and recorded again in June 1741 as a “new Tyrolean farm girl playing the hurdy-gurdy.” In October 1747, Kaendler records further adjustments to the model. She is also seen as one of a pair with the bagpipe player modeled at the same time in 1736 (1992.0427.01), described as “a Harlequin with bagpipes (“Einen Arlequin mit dem Tutel Sack” Die Arbeitsberichte des Meissener Porzellanmodelleurs Johann Joachim Kaendler 1706-1775, 2002 p.40.) When this figure was made it had become fashionable for aristocratic women to play the hurdy-gurdy, and at court amusements a noblewoman might dress as Columbine or in Tirolean apparel and play the hurdy-gurdy.
Meissen figures and figure groups were usually modeled in clay, and then carefully cut into separate pieces from which individual molds were made. Porcelain clay was then pressed into the molds and the whole figure or group reassembled to its original state, a process requiring great care and skill. The piece was then dried thoroughly before firing in the kiln. In the production of complex figure groups the work was arduous and required the making of many molds from the original model.
The figure is painted in overglaze enamel colors and gold.
On table decorations at the Dresden court see Maureen Cassidy-Geiger “The Hof-Conditorey in Dresden: traditions and innovations in Porcelain and Sugar” in Pietsch, U., Banz, C., 2010, Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgeoisie 1710-1815, pp.61-67).
On the history and play of the hurdy-gurdy see the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments Vol. 2, 1984, pp.260-264, or online
On the modeling and molding process still practiced 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.
Hans Syz, J. Jefferson Miller II, Rainer Rückert, 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp. 443-443.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
ca 1740
Meissen Manufactory
place made
Germany: Saxony, Meissen
Physical Description
blue underglaze (overall color)
hard-paste porcelain (overall material)
polychrome enamels and gold (overall color)
figure (overall style)
overall: 4 7/8 in; 12.3825 cm
overall: 4 15/16 in x 2 5/8 in x 2 1/2 in; 12.54125 cm x 6.6675 cm x 6.35 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog 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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