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A Royal Menagerie: A Palace Full of Meissen Porcelain Animals

A Royal Menagerie: A Palace Full of Meissen Porcelain Animals – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – February 2002

Augustus the Strong, king of Poland (1670-1733) had long been a collector of Japanese and Chinese porcelain, and it was to house his collection that the Japanese Palace in Dresden was purchased. Augustus enlarged the building in 1729 to nearly double in size to create his “porcelain palace.”

The Great Gallery became home to 296 porcelain mammals and 297 porcelain birds: many types, both native and foreign, made of pure porcelain in their natural sizes and colors. These pieces were created between 1730 and 1735 at the Saxon royal porcelain manufactory in Meissen, near Dresden.  The commission of these fabulous creatures came late in Augustus’ life and was the result of his visit to Versailles years earlier where the elaborate gardens included a menagerie and a maze arrayed with bronze animal figures inspired by Aesop’s Fables.

The commission for the sculptures by Augustus was highly important for the young Meissen porcelain factory, which had been founded 20 years earlier. Because the formula for hard- paste porcelain had only recently been discovered in Europe ( following decades of experimentation begun in the 1670’s), production of porcelain models of this size had never before been attempted outside of China.  The unusual size of the figures- some exceeding four feet in height- presented great difficulties in devising a suitable porcelain recipe and learning hoe to construct, glaze and fire various pieces.

“Heroic is perhaps the best word to sum up the entire effort of creating these porcelain creatures,” says Gillian Wilson, longtime curator of decorative arts at the Getty Museum. “From design to manufacture, their successful completion was a tour de force, making it arguably the most significant commission of porcelain executed at that time in Europe.”

By turns whimsical and graceful, the dramatically expressive sculptures of birds and exotic wildlife were designed by two artists with remarkably distinct artistic personalities, Johann Gottlieb Kirchner and Johann Joachim Kaendler.  Although they were the same age and trained at about the same time in Dresden, they embraced different attitudes and traditions. Kaendler directly observed live animals and birds in the royal menageries and studied stuffed specimens in the natural history collection.  This gave his figures a naturalism and spontaneity missing from more conventional Kirchner models. Although Kirchner also traveled to observe the king’s live menagerie in 1732, he designed from prints and drawings, remaining loyal to a more monumental vision rooted in classical tradition and two dimensional models.

According to expert Samuel Wittwer, “The large scale animal sculptures that left Dresden over the past two hundred years are now dispersed throughout the world in public and private collections. Only rarely are several found together. This is due in part to the high prices these incunables of European porcelain sculpture have commanded from the beginning. Even the production costs charged to Augustus the Strong were enormously high when one considers, for instance, that the sum of 309 thalers charged for a cassowary in 1734 was almost exactly equal to three-quarters of the annual salary paid to Johann Kaendler, the master modeler.”

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