Hand-Painted Scenic Meissen Porcelain from 1710 to 1880
The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – February 2006
Chinese potters purportedly, were the first to discover or invent the formula for hard paste porcelain in the 10th century AD. Recent evidence suggests that the Chinese may have found all the ingredients necessary for porcelain production ready-mixed in the ground. Over time, Chinese potters improved this mixture by altering some of the ingredients and were thus able to produce high quality hard paste porcelain.
The Chinese and Japanese (who apparently stole the porcelain formula from the Chinese) produced porcelain mainly for their home market from approximately 900 AD until the 17th century. At that time, the Dutch United East India Company began trading in the Orient and transported large quantities of Chinese and Japanese porcelain to Europe. These expensive porcelain items, which included plates, platters, chargers, bowls, cups, saucers, vases, garniture sets, etc. were in great demand by wealthy Europeans. Not only was porcelain more practical for food and drink compared to silver and pewter, it was more resistant to heat. In addition, owning imported porcelain was a status symbol conferring a patina of wealth, culture, education and taste on its owners.
Experiments had begun in Europe as early as the 1575 to discover the ingredients of the hard-paste porcelain produced in China and Japan. These efforts proved fruitless for almost 135 years. However, in 1709 Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719), a self proclaimed alchemist, discovered the materials required to produce a white, translucent, high-fired porcelain, and this discovery had profound consequences for the entire European ceramic industry.
The checkered history of European porcelain production in general and Meissen in particular reminds one of a present day soap opera or the classic 1914 silent film The Perils of Pauline and is a fascinating blend of creativity, perfidy, greed, egomania, wars, revolutions, mismanagement, industrial espionage, thievery, internecine fighting, calumny, etc.
The Meissen Manufactory
The Early Years – 1710-1732
Johann Friedrich Böttger, born in 1682, was rumored to have made gold from silver in 1701 while in Berlin. When news of this transmutation reached Fredrich I, the King of Prussia, he attempted to arrest Böttger so the alchemist could produce gold for the king personally. Warned of his impending arrest with its possible associated torture, Böttger escaped to Saxony only to be arrested and imprisoned in the Gold-House (a part of the Dresden Royal Castle) by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland (1694-1733). Augustus wanted Böttger to produce gold to pay for his grand lifestyle and his war with Sweden (the Nordic War, 1700-1721). Böttger, knowing that he could not meet this demand, escaped in 1702, only to be recaptured, re-imprisoned and forced to sign a letter stating that he would assiduously try to produce gold and make no further attempts to escape.
Fortuitously Böttger met Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus (1651-1708), a well-respected scientist and philosopher, who had an interest in producing porcelain, an interest also shared by Augustus. After much experimentation and with the help of von Tschirnhaus, Böttger discovered the secret of making hard paste porcelain in 1709. This led to the establishment of a porcelain manufactory which was moved to Albrechtsburg in Meissen in 1710 and began producing porcelain in 1715. Augustus expected the manufactory to produce quality hand-made porcelain and to turn a profit. In addition, the formula (arcanum) for producing hard paste porcelain was to remain secret on pain of imprisonment and/or death. Böttger was appointed the first director.
The factory’s initial offerings were inspired by examples of Chinese and Japanese porcelain from Augustus’ extensive collection. However, compared to their Oriental counterparts, these early products were not of high quality, since Böttger was unable to produce vivid, long lasting, fire resistant enamels for the painting of porcelain. Most of the enamels available were applied over the glaze (“cold painting”) and thus were prone to wear.
Böttger died in 1719 and further painting innovations were not introduced until Johann Gregorius Höroldt (1696-1775), a gifted but eccentric painter, was enticed to move from du Paquier’s factory in Vienna (later to become the Royal Vienna factory) to the Meissen manufactory in 1720. Höroldt was eventually appointed director and chief painter. In addition to introducing a wide variety of polychrome enamel paints that could be used under glaze, Höroldt also developed the classic Meissen style copied from copper engravings of well known paintings and the Chinese and Japanese porcelain from Augustus’ collection. Although Höroldt was famous for his chinoiserie and Japanese Kakiemon style, he also introduced classic flower, fruit, animal, harbour, battle, hunting, pastoral, Watteau and bird scenes. Many of these themes and designs, produced well into the late 19th century, are still available and much sought after by collectors today.
The decoration of Meissen porcelain was, supposedly, limited to painters employed by and in the Meissen factory. However as early as Böttger’s reign, Hausmalers (outside or house painters) also known as Pfuschers (botchers) illegally obtained white Meissen porcelain and reproduced or expanded on many of the themes detailed above. The Meissen factory attempted, but failed, to stop the sale of this white, undecorated porcelain. The introduction of the classic blue crossed sword marks was in part a response to this freelance decoration.
Some Hausmalers probably worked at Meissen and “moon-lighted” outside the factory. Höroldt himself may have decorated Meissen porcelain at home and sold it for his own financial gains. Other decorators had their own shops in competition with Meissen. At Augsburg, Johann Aufenwerth, his daughters Elisabeth Anna and Sabina, the Seuter brothers and others painted chinoiseries in gold and silver. These shops also produced harbor and hunting scenes. The workshop of Hausmaler Franz Ferdinand Mayer of Pressnitz, Bohemia (1745-1776) produced high quality allegorical scenes in the Rococo style, hunting and shepherd scenes and landscapes. Johann Friedrich Metzsch, Rudolf Christoph von Drechsel and Johann Christoph Jucht of Bayreuth, painted figures in landscapes with palace architecture or harbor scenes, enclosed in ornamental borders.
The presence of the Hausmalers has plagued the Meissen manufactory throughout its history. Even today, painters trained at or by Meissen produce quality painting on porcelain and sponsor workshops for interested novitiates. Much of the Hausmaler’s work over the years has been of very high quality and cannot be distinguished from original Meissen painting on porcelain except by some experts. Occasionally Hausmaler’s porcelain can be accurately identified when a known artist’s initials appear on the piece. Nonetheless, quality Hausmalers’ porcelain items are as sought after as “original” Meissen factory pieces by the collector in today’s market. In addition, the price of these Hausmalers’ items is equivalent to similar factory produced items.
The competition from the Hausmalers was only one of the many problems during Höroldt’s tenure at Meissen; Höroldt himself became a burden. Although undeniably a talented painter and innovator, he was juvenile, immature, jealous, arrogant, egocentric and arbitrary. For example, although he hired the gifted painter Christian Friedrich Heroldt who specialized in chinoiseries and harbor scenes, he also drove many talented painters away by assigning them themes that were not in their area of interest or expertise, underpaying and berating them.
Johann Joachim Kändler (1706-1775) was hired as court sculptor by the King in 1731 and appointed as master in 1733. He remained at Meissen until his death in 1775. He was charged with improving the quality of Meissen sculpted figures and tableware. His large animal and delicate human figures raised the art of porcelain modeling to new heights. Indeed, his original pieces (rarely found in today’s marketplace) and later “pulls” are still in great demand. Kändler’s success upset Höroldt who spent many years, until he retired in 1765, trying to undermine the master modeler. In retaliation, Kändler steadily reduced the space for paintwork on the factory’s tableware. Indeed, his Swan Service of the late 1730s had very few flat surfaces on which to paint. Kändler remained active at Meissen until his death in 1775.
Meissen from 1733 to 1815 Including the Marcolini Era
Augustus II died in 1733 and was succeeded by his son, Augustus III. Although not as avid a patron of the arts, Augustus III was interested in the Meissen factory and appointed his chancellor Count Heinrich, Graf von Bruhl as director. Augustus III was interested in European paintings and sculpture and thus Höroldt’s oriental style slowly fell out of favor. In addition the quality of painting on porcelain deteriorated as Kändler’s figurines and tableware gained ascendancy. By the mid 1700s the Sèvres factory in France surpassed Meissen in producing high quality, artistic hand painted porcelain.
Events continued to conspire against the Meissen factory. In 1756 Saxony joined France, Austria, Russia, Sweden, and (after 1762) Spain against Prussia, Great Britain, and Hanover during the Seven Years War. Saxony was the first country invaded by Frederick II of Prussia. The Prussians occupied the Meissen factory and porcelain production and quality fell dramatically. Count Bruhl and Augustus III died in 1763 at the end of the war and occupation. Augustus was succeeded as Elector of Saxony by his grandson who later became King Frederick Augustus I.
During this time and until 1773 Meissen porcelain was marked with a dot in between the cross swords (the so called “dot period”). Although, this period marks the transition to the Neo-Classicism style it was not associated with a revival of fortunes at Meissen. Paintings on porcelain, although of high technical quality remained derivative and often uninspired. In an attempt to revive Meissen’s creative spirit, Michel Victor Acier was appointed master-modeler in 1776, and he began producing high quality, imaginative mythological figures. However painting on porcelain continued to languish.
Meissen’s fortunes improved somewhat in 1774 when Count Camillo Marcolini was appointed director. During Marcolini’s early years he fired the incompetent and hired talented painters, reorganized the Meissen factory and introduced the Neo-Classical and Empire style to replace the Rococo style which had fallen out of favor. Bucolic, hunting and harbor scenes continued to be produced and vividly painted flowers, fruits, birds, and insects adorned many porcelain pieces.
However this revival was short lived. Once again politics and conflict intervened. During the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) the French occupied the factory and the quality of and demand for Meissen porcelain again waned. In addition there was fierce competition from other European and English manufactories.
Meissen from 1815 to 1885
Following Marcolini’s death in 1814 the Meissen manufactory continued to deteriorate both financially and artistically. Not until Heinrich Gottlob Kuhn (1814-1885) was appointed Director in 1831 did the manufactory’s fortunes begin to improve as technical innovations, new colors, better glazes and wares reflecting the taste of the time were introduced. These newer techniques resulted in a more brilliant gold and more colors that were particularly suited to the Romantic, Rococo and Renaissance revival styles popular at that time. In addition to innovations in sculpture, this resurgence also led to a renewed interest by in-house painters and Hausmalers for paintings on porcelain. Portrait and topographical paintings on porcelain were added to the traditional themes.
In 1861 Meissen moved from Albrechtsburg to nearby Triebesch. Compared to the old factory this new factory was larger, had better facilities and more efficient coal burning kilns. Meissen participated in the Great London Exhibition of 1862. Its’ new and revised painting on porcelain and figures were well received and rivaled the products exhibited by Sèvres and KPM. Over the ensuing years, in addition to its traditional wares, Meissen dabbled in lithopanes, pate sur pate and even capo de monte style products with variable artistic and commercial success. In 1870 Morris Raithel was appointed director and in 1884 he extended the buildings, increased the number of kilns and introduced the Art Nouveau style.
The Meissen factory has overcome the vicissitudes of war, economic depression, poor management and creative mediocrity to remain, arguably, the finest porcelain manufacturer in the world. As the factory approaches its 300th anniversary in 2010, its figures and paintings on porcelain, particularly those from the 18th and 19th century, continue to be in great demand by today’s collectors. Prices for 18th and 19th century Meissen painting on porcelain varies from several hundred dollars to approximately $7,500 or more depending on scarcity, age and venue. The photographs that accompany this article, give the interested reader some idea of the prices in today’s market. In addition the website www.the-saleroom.com has prices realized and a list and description of over 2,200 Meissen items offered at auction since 2001. Over 1,450 of these items have accompanying photographs.
Meissen porcelain is available at multiple venues. eBay usually has 700-900 Meissen items listed at any one time and about 3-4% are scenic paintings on porcelain. There are a number of antique shops that specialize in, or have a good selection of Meissen, which include The Meissen Shop in Palm Beach, Fla., the Manhattan Art and Antique Center in New York City, the Seattle Porcelain Gallery, and some of the shops located on Charles Street in Boston. Sotheby’s dedicates two auctions a year primarily to Meissen items and other auction houses such as Skinners in Boston, Freemans in Philadelphia, and Jacksons Auctioneers and Appraisers in Cedar Falls, Iowa often have pieces of Meissen available. The websites www.arts-antique.com and www.themeissenshop.com specialize in Meissen, and www.the-saleroom.com lists European, English, Canadian and some American auctions, many of which offer Meissen pieces. Meissen items can also be found at high quality shows including the New York Antique Pier Show and the annual Baltimore Antiques Summer Fair.