The porcelain creations of 18th-century masters such as Johann Gregorius Höroldt and Johann Joachim Kändler, never equaled, continue to inspire collectors and artists.
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He’d done it! After more than seven agonizing years of trying, the German alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger hit upon the formula for hard-paste porcelain in January 1709. Discovering the chemical key to making the ceramics that all the nobles of Europe coveted—a discovery that came down to mixing the right clay (kaolin) with the right stone (feldspathic-rich petuntse)—changed everything. Meissen, the Saxon town where the porcelain factory was established a year later, became famous, and Meissen’s crossed-swords trademark, introduced in 1720, became one of the best-known (and most-faked) in history. Cash poured into the coffers of Meissen’s royal patron and biggest fan, Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, and more than 40 years of dazzling decorative-arts triumphs would follow.
Three centuries after the first examples left the kilns, early Meissen porcelain has lost none of its magic. The de Young Museum in San Francisco unveiled a testimony to this fact last December when it opened “A Princely Pursuit: The Malcolm D. Gutter Collection of Early Meissen Porcelain,” which will continue on view through August 30. Featuring 103 objects, the show celebrates the decades when Meissen held the monopoly on hard-paste porcelain by spotlighting some of its most breathtaking achievements.
Among them is red stoneware, the recipe for which Böttger came across on the road to white porcelain, and which China was then exporting. The beguiling material was so hard, it could be carved and faceted like a gemstone, but the Meissen artists found several ways of enhancing its beauty with paint, as well. Gutter’s holdings of scarce red stoneware are well represented in the de Young show. Particularly notable are an exceedingly early black-glazed pair of tea bowls, which might predate the founding of the Meissen factory, and a striking mounted tankard made between 1710 and 1713 and painted to resemble marble, one of only 15 such vessels known. Meissen’s artisans were also inclined to let a red stoneware vessel’s shape serve as its own ornamentation, as it did with a coffee pot design credited to Dresden court silversmith Johann Jakob Irminger.
But once Böttger and his team perfected the production of white porcelain, interest in red stoneware diminished, and Meissen stopped making it around 1720. That year coincides with the arrival of Johann Gregorius Höroldt, a painter who came from the Du Paquier porcelain factory in Vienna. His contributions during his five decades at Meissen would almost equal those of Böttger, who died in 1719. Höroldt founded the palette for porcelain painters, creating the formulas for 16 hues that remain in use today. He also established what would later be called the Schulz Codex, the pattern book from which his team of Meissen porcelain painters copied scenes and motifs. A total of six pieces in the Gutter exhibition are displayed alongside their respective entries in the Codex, clearly showing the sources of their imagery.
Höroldt’s painterly nature led him to treat porcelain as a canvas, and images of chinoiserie—fanciful scenes of East Asia that reflected how Europeans of the time pictured the region—proved popular for obvious reasons. Gutter favored gloriously painted Meissen wares and secured some especially intriguing ones, such as a circa 1723–24 chinoiserie tea bowl and saucer that shows figures at work. Chinoiserie scenes virtually never show anything as mundane as people in the throes of toil, but this is the exception that proves the rule—the scene on the tea bowl shows figures tending a muffle kiln. Only porcelain manufacture, a profession swathed in rumor and mystery, was dreamy and romantic enough to feature on a piece of porcelain.
Another prize in the Gutter show is a mounted coffee pot dating to 1723 or 1724, which shows a regent in Asian dress who grasps a purple vase. The Western-looking royal’s bushy eyebrows are a dead giveaway that the man is meant to be Augustus the Strong. “It’s possibly the earliest depiction of Augustus on porcelain,” says Maria Santangelo, associate curator of European decorative arts and sculpture at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and the main curator on the Gutter exhibition. “He’s holding a piece of porcelain. It’s quite remarkable.” A brochure from the museum carefully describes the coffee pot as having been “painted under the direction of Johann Gregorius Höroldt,” but the odds are good that Höroldt himself wielded the brush. The dates fall within the brief period when Höroldt actively painted Meissen porcelain (he stopped in 1724, consumed with managerial duties and other tasks) and it’s logical that he would have claimed the opportunity to depict the king. Santangelo deems it “probable to possible” that Höroldt is behind the unsigned work. “Early on, he would have been involved with painting pieces, and this is a remarkable coffee pot,” she says. “With a subject that important, he may have taken it on himself.”
Meissen porcelain that can be unambiguously credited to Höroldt is rare. Michele Beiny Harkins, a New York dealer of antique porcelain and 18th-century Meissen that primarily dates to the period covered by the Gutter show, estimates that fewer than 100 examples exist. Right now, she has a fantastic one in the form of a Meissen documentary chinoiserie bowl in a non-standard size and a unique shade of green. “Höroldt made a series of sample bowls, decorated in unusual colors,” she says, explaining that 135 were produced and 12 to 14 survive. “They were made outside of regular hours, and they were samples for the king to look at. They were property of Höroldt. He owned them. Mine is interesting because it’s dated on the bottom. Only one other is fully dated.” Though the deep green hue, which Höroldt christened “iron green,” pleased him enough for him to sign the sample bowl, the king did not share his enthusiasm, causing it to be the only piece of Meissen to bear this color.
Höroldt’s supremacy and philosophy were challenged when Johann Joachim Kändler joined Meissen in 1731. Augustus dearly wanted an artisan who could explore the three-dimensional possibilities of porcelain, and after some false starts with candidates who failed to understand the material and an imperfect recruit in Johann Gottlieb Kirchner, whose porcelain designs the king regarded as less than spectacular, he found his star in Kändler. Rarely have the merits of painting and sculpting been pitted against each other so clearly as in the output of pre-1756 Meissen porcelain. If both men were alive today—they died within months of each other in 1775—Höroldt would be sorely annoyed at how the marketplace rewards Kändler’s designs. Make no mistake, Höroldt’s masterworks are valued highly by collectors, but Kändler’s confections are even more sought after. “My clientele is more interested in porcelain sculptures, figures and groups, than service pieces,” says Friedel Kirsch, a dealer of 18th-century Meissen who heads Elfriede Langeloh, a firm that was founded by her grandmother in Cologne, Germany, in 1919 and bears her name. Today the business is located in the town of Weinheim, in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Speaking through a translator, Kirsch adds, “It is a trend. Kändler, at the moment, is the gladiator.”
Always popular are figures of stock characters from the Italian commedia dell’ arte which was all the rage in Dresden when Kändler originally sculpted them. “Italian comedy groups had been at the court of Augustus the Strong,” Kirsch says, explaining that the Saxon nobles embraced the raucous humor as a relief from the ponderous social conventions of the court. “Kändler’s work was wonderfully done, and it was absolutely new at the time.” The commedia dell’ arte pieces Kirsch currently has include a circa 1738–39 figure of a Scowling Harlequin in the less common form in which he holds a sausage (in the other version, he holds a dagger) and a group, the Indiscreet Harlequin, from around 1742, which shows Columbine seated on Beltrame’s lap and gazing enraptured into his eyes, unaware that Harlequin is
below, looking up her skirt. The commedia dell’ arte figures cast a potent spell over collectors of early Meissen. “If you’re lucky to have 8 Harlequins, you try to get 10 Harlequins,” Kirsch says.
Kändler’s animals provoke an even greater frenzy among Meissen collectors that reaches its peak with the oversize beasts he sculpted for Augustus the Strong’s porcelain zoo. The king commissioned them for the Japanese Palace, his vision of the ultimate monument to what is often called “white gold.”
Augustus’s death in 1733 halted the ambitious project, which was never completed, but whenever one of Kändler’s zoo animals reaches the market, it commands seven figures. Second in desirability, and more easily obtained, are pieces from the Swan service created for Count Heinrich von Brühl. Produced between 1737 and 1741 and consisting of at least 2,200 items (it might extend to 3,000 if porcelain-handled utensils are counted), it amply deserves its fame. “It’s a service that really worships the material of porcelain,” says Beiny Harkins. “There’s hardly any painted material on it. It’s the first really sculptural porcelain service to be made on a large scale.” Von Brühl’s uniquely powerful position at court—Augustus the Strong’s son and successor, Augustus III, effectively delegated the running of Saxony, and the Meissen factory, to him—allowed him to embark upon the extravagant commission. “He could order anything he wanted from the factory and didn’t have to pay,” Beiny Harkins says. “It was much grander than anything the king ordered for himself.”
The Swan service’s beauty is yoked to tragedy. After the count died, about half the pieces were stored at a von Brühl estate in Poland, which was seized by Russians during World War II. They blasted open a safe in the basement to see what it held, destroying many of the porcelains stashed inside in the process. Irritated to find not gold or jewels but a bunch of dishes and platters and tureens, the soldiers got drunk and tossed the precious objects in the air for target practice. Beiny Harkins says that as recently as 20 years ago, a German ceramics group visiting the site found Swan service shards on the grounds.
Fortunately, the Russians didn’t destroy everything. Von Brühl’s descendants have been selling off members of the Swan service piecemeal since the 19th century. A pair of Swan candlesticks acquired by Gutter appear in “Princely Pursuit.” When Swan service items appear for sale, they tend to command at least $15,000 for a dinner plate and $50,000 and up for larger pieces, such as chargers.
Meissen’s dominance in European porcelain production started to falter in 1750. By then, enough disgruntled Meissen employees had shared their knowledge with enough determined spies and thieves to spread the secret of hard-paste porcelain across the continent. But the Seven Years’ War took a greater toll. Porcelain production stopped at Meissen in 1756, and by the time it restarted, the neoclassical wares of the French factory at Sèvres ruled the day. Meissen carried on, but it had lost its primacy and its aesthetic edge. It did, and still does, reproduce its greatest hits from the first half of the 18th century, but more innovations would come. Hugh Davies, a Meissen expert in London, specializes in Meissen’s Art Nouveau and Art Deco eras, as well as items enlivened by inglaze, a somewhat laborious decorative technique used at Meissen between 1890 and 1920. “They had to fire the final glaze of color at a very high temperature, and they never saw the true color until it was fired,” Davies says. “It was a very expensive process. They don’t do it today.”
In 2010 the Meissen factory celebrated the tricentennial of its founding. It has long since moved out of the forbidding Albrechtsburg Castle for friendlier digs elsewhere in town. Once the nexus of a jealously-guarded secret, today it joyously throws its doors open to the public, hosting a corporate museum in a former showroom, along with guided tours, organ recitals on an instrument fitted with Meissen porcelain pipes, serving demos for coffee, tea, and cocoa using modern Meissen vessels, and more. The factory has also collaborated with more than 30 contemporary artists. Especially notable is its relationship with American ceramic artist Chris Antemann, who has long been inspired by 18th-century porcelain figures. Her enchanting full-room installation Forbidden Fruit: A Porcelain Paradise debuted at Meissen in fall 2013 and appears at the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Ore., until April 19. Beginning on October 3, Forbidden Fruit will be on view at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. Antemann’s Meissen collaboration also yielded a number of unique and limited-edition pieces such as A Taste of Paradise.
And last October, Meissen achieved something that Kändler dreamed of doing but never managed: creating the largest freestanding porcelain sculpture ever made. Standing five feet, nine inches tall, weighing more than 1,700 pounds, and dubbed Saxonia, the sculpture of a fashionable young woman commemorates the silver anniversary of the reunification of Germany. The masterwork of Meissen’s head sculptor, Jörg Danielcyk, the statue needed three weeks to fire in the house’s kilns, and its gown is covered with 8,000 handmade porcelain blooms. If Kändler, whose plans for a porcelain sculpture of Augustus the Strong were perpetually frustrated, could see Saxonia, he would be convinced that Meissen is in good hands. “People want the best of the best. When you deal with Meissen, that’s what you deal with,” Davies says. “It was like the Rolls-Royce of porcelain in Europe, and in my view, it still is.”