Meissen tray for a tête à tête tea and coffee service

Meissen tray for a tête à tête tea and coffee service

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TITLE: Meissen tray from a tête à tête tea and coffee service
MAKER: Meissen Manufactory
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: ceramic, porcelain, hard paste (overall material)
MEASUREMENTS: 1 5/8 in x 15 3/4 in x 10 1/4 in; 4.1275 cm x 40.005 cm x 26.035 cm
PLACE MADE: Meissen, Saxony, Germany
DATE MADE: 1805-1815
SUBJECT: The Alfred Duane Pell Collection
Domestic Furnishing
Industry and Manufacturing
CREDIT LINE: The Alfred Duane Pell Collection
COLLECTOR/ DONOR: Alfred Duane Pell
(DATA SOURCE: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)
MARK: Crossed swords and a star in underglaze blue.
This tray is from a Meissen tea and coffee service made for two people, and services of this kind for use at breakfast or for intimate meetings are known as têtê à têtê or cabaret services. Most interesting, however, are the enamel painted topographical images of Egyptian landscapes and antiquities, which date the service to the early nineteenth century after the publication of Baron Dominique Vivant Denon’s Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte (Travels in Lower and Upper Egypt) in 1802.
In 1798 Denon traveled to Egypt as a member of Napoleon’s large team of scientists, engineers, artists, and scholars appended to the general’s army of about 20,000 troops who occupied Lower Egypt and chased the Mamluk Turks, then rulers of the country, into Upper Egypt. Known as the savants, these men studied and recorded all that they saw of both ancient and modern Egypt. As an artist, art collector, and antiquarian, Denon marveled at the sites of Egyptian antiquity and recorded in drawings everything that he could get down on paper while traveling with a battalion of the French army into Upper Egypt. His drawings, later engraved and published in the Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte are still a valuable record of Egypt’s ancient sites before the archaeological excavations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the construction of the first and second Aswan Dams.
Napoleon’s campaign was not a military success, his fleet destroyed by the British at the Battle of Abū Qīr Bay near Alexandria on August 1, 1798, thus isolating the French army on land in Egypt and restoring British control over the Mediterranean Sea. His team of scientists, engineers and artists, however, were undoubtedly successful in bringing new knowledge of ancient Egypt to Europe and America. Denon’s Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte was a very successful publication and the spirited account of his experiences was soon translated into English and other languages. It is likely that the enamel paintings on this tea and coffee service were commissioned privately by someone who owned a copy of the Voyage. When compared with the original engravings there are differences in detail and composition, which was not unusual, but for the most part the Meissen painters were faithful to Denon’s record, which was not in color, unlike the rich polychrome enamels seen on the tea and coffee service.
The parts of the service are molded in the severe, but nevertheless ornate, neoclassical style fashionable in designs of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With its origins in France artists and designers who worked in the neoclassical style took inspiration from ancient Roman and Greek art and architecture. Neoclassicism in its most ideologically pure form expressed a taste for elevated, didactic, and moral subjects in rejection of the court culture of the old regime prior to the French Revolution. In the German States, and especially in Berlin, the neoclassical style was favored by designers and architects.
The painting shows a view of the Island of Philae (Jazīrat Fīlah) after engravings in Denon’s Voyages. His several drawings of the site depict different views of the ancient Egyptian and later Hellenistic structures erected during the Ptolemaic period 323-30 B.C.E. Known as P-aaleq in ancient Egypt the island was in the remote south on the boundary with Nubia, and did not become a major center for the worship of Egyptian deities until the goddess Isis drew into her orbit Greek and Roman worshippers during their period of colonial rule in Egypt. Denon’s drawings of Philae are valuable for their record of the island and its monuments before they were partially submerged after construction of the first Aswan dam, completed in 1902. When the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1970s the Philae monuments were moved and reconstructed on the island of Agilkia, 300 meters downstream from their original site, where they can be viewed on dry land today.
This service belongs to the Alfred Duane Pell collection in the National Museum of American History. Before Pell(1864-1924) became an Episcopalian clergyman quite late in life, he and his wife Cornelia Livingstone Crosby Pell (1861-1938) travelled widely, and as they travelled they collected European porcelains, silver, and furniture. Pell came from a wealthy family and he purchased the large William Pickhardt Mansion on 5th Avenue and East 74th Street in which to display his vast collection. The Smithsonian was one of several institutions to receive substantial bequests from the Reverend Pell in the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Bob Brier, Napoleon in Egypt, exhibition catalog Hillwood Art Museum, Brookville, New York: 1990.
Bob Brier, Egyptomania: Our Three Thousand Year Obsession with the Land of the Pharaohs, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
James Stevens Curl, Egyptomania, the Egyptian Revival: a Recurring Theme in the History of Taste, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994.
Egyptomania: Egypt in Western Art 1730-1930, exhibition catalog, National Gallery of Canada with the Louvre, Paris, 1994.
Paul V. Gardner, 1956, 1966 (rev. ed.), Meissen and other German Porcelain in the Alfred Duane Pell Collection.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
Meissen Manufactory
Physical Description
black (overall color)
blue (overall color)
polychrome (overall surface decoration color name)
ceramic, porcelain, hard-paste (overall material)
overall: 1 5/8 in x 15 3/4 in x 10 1/4 in; 4.1275 cm x 40.005 cm x 26.035 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
See more items in
Cultural and Community Life: Ceramics and Glass
Industry & Manufacturing
Domestic Furnishings
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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