Meissen figure of a woodcutter

Meissen figure of a woodcutter

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TITLE: Meissen figure of a peasant woodcutter
MAKER: Meissen Manufactory
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: ceramic, porcelain, hard paste (overall material)
MEASUREMENTS: 5⅜" 13.7 cm
PLACE MADE: Meissen, Saxony, Germany
SUBJECT: The Hans Syz Collection
Domestic Furnishing
Industry and Manufacturing
CREDIT LINE: Hans C. Syz Collection
ID NUMBER: 75.189
(DATA SOURCE: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)
MARKS: Crossed swords in underglaze blue.
PURCHASED FROM: Adolf Beckhardt, The Art Exchange, 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 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.
The peasant seen here splitting a log, was modeled by Johann Joachim Kaendler under commission for Count Heinrich von Brühl’s (1700-1763) confectionary kitchen. The confectioners were responsible for the decoration of the dessert tables, and porcelain figures joined those made out of sugar, almond paste, or wax, which were not as durable or prestigious as porcelain. Count Brühl planned entertainments similar to those at court where elaborate table decorations were made to compliment the theme of the event. In this figure the heavy labor of hewing wood is expressed through the weight of the axe as it falls. For court society this figure represented someone on the margins of their world who might arouse curiosity and the fleeting amusement of imagining themselves in a condition quite unlike their own, indeed, entertainments at which a figure like this one formed part of a table decoration often featured members of the court dressed as rural peasants.
Count Heinrich von Brühl became director of the Meissen manufactory in 1733. Under Friedrich August III (1696-1763), Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, von Brühl held high office, and in 1746 became the first individual to hold the position of Prime Minister in the State. He was immensely wealthy and lived extravagantly; his office required that he entertain visiting diplomats and members from other European courts. Many commissions undertaken by the Meissen Manufactory between 1733 and the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756 were for Count Brühl, and his collection of table figures was large.
This figure was probably part of a themed decorative display for the dessert table at official and festive banquets, and the subject of rural life was a source of fascination for the nobility at the Dresden court. The porcelain figures formed part of the design in conjunction with decorations sculpted in sugar and other materials to create an elaborate display for the final course of the meal. The practice of sculpting in sugar, marzipan, butter, and ice for the festive table goes back for many centuries, and porcelain figures were a late addition to the tradition.
The figure is painted in overglaze enamel colors and gold.
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. See the same publication for Maureen Cassidy-Geiger's chapter on court table decorations 'The Hof-Conditorey: Traditions and Innovations in Sugar and Porcelain", pp.121-131. See also Ivan Day, 'Sculpture for the Eighteenth-Century Garden Dessert', in Harlan Walker (ed.) Food in the Arts: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1999, pp. 57-66.
Hans Syz, J. Jefferson Miller II, Rainer Rückert, 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection, pp. 424-425.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
Meissen Manufactory
place made
Germany: Saxony, Meissen
Physical Description
polychrome (overall surface decoration color name)
ceramic, porcelain, hard-paste (overall material)
blue (overall color)
overall: 5 3/8 in; 13.6525 cm
overall: 5 5/16 in x 4 in x 2 1/8 in; 13.49375 cm x 10.16 cm x 5.3975 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession 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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