(DATA SOURCE: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)
MARKS: Crossed swords in underglaze blue; “O” impressed (former’s mark).
PURCHASED FROM: Adolf Beckhardt, The Art Exchange, New York, 1943.
This vase 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 the German States, 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.
This double gourd or calabash-shaped vase has a purple onglaze ground with reserves containing onglaze enamel paintings of birds, with on one side of the vase the flowering branches of tree peony and on the other side chrysanthemums in full bloom. Ceramic vessels imitating the shapes of gourds have a long history, almost as long as the use of dried gourds themselves for food storage and consumption. In China gourds were cultivated in Neolithic times and over the centuries the uses and meanings associated with them proliferated in Chinese culture, in particular the association with a gourd’s many seeds as a symbol of fertility. The double-gourd is also the Buddhist emblem of Li T’ieh-kuai, one of the eight immortals who when embodied as a beggar carried the gourd to contain medicine that he administered to the sick. The double-gourd shape imitated in porcelain was, and still is, especially popular for use as an ornament for interior living spaces, now often seen to function as a stand for a table lamp.
The Meissen Manufactory produced vases for a set, or garniture, typically to decorate a mantelpiece or buffet. This gourd-shaped vase probably belonged to a set of three, five, or seven pieces. It was not uncommon to mount a garniture in ormolu, and Meissen sets sold in France were often decorated in this manner. Garnitures remained popular in the nineteenth century, but demand for them declined in the last century. The eighteenth-century baroque and Rococo taste for luxury goods regarded oriental and European porcelain as a feature of interior design; individual items were not appreciated as works of art in the sense that collectors and connoisseurs value them today.
The Saxon Elector and King of Poland, Augustus II, admired the colored ground technique in overglaze enamels, and the director of painting at Meissen, Johann Gregor Höroldt, developed ground colors to match Augustus’s design for interior décor in the Japanese Palace which held his vast collection of ceramic artifacts. Most ground colors were applied to porcelain vessels by flicking a brush loaded with enamel pigment onto the glazed surface which was prepared with a thin layer of gum to hold the color and prevent it from running down the glazed sides of a vessel; in a later technique a fine textile pad loaded with powdered color pigment was used to apply the ground onto a gummed surface. Areas were masked out to reserve a white space for painting. The French Sèvres porcelain manufactory is better known for its development of rich, deep ground colors in the mid-eighteenth century, especially royal blue, pink, and green on soft-paste porcelain.
For examples of vases with colored grounds see Pietsch, U., Banz, C., 2010, Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Aristocracy and Bourgoisie 1710-1815, pp.268-274.
On the Japanese Palace see Cassidy-Geiger, M., 1995, “The Japanese Palace Collections and their Impact at Meissen”, in The International Ceramics Fair and Seminar, London, pp. 15-24; 1996, “Meissen Porcelain Ordered for the Japanese Palace”, in Keramos: Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft der Keramikfreunde, pp. 119-130.
On the impact of Chinese porcelain in a global context see Robert Finlay, 2010, The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History.
Jefferson Miller II, J., Rückert, R., Syz, H., 1979, Catalogue of the Hans Syz Collection: Meissen Porcelain and Hausmalerei, pp. 186-187.