Purchase Story

European Porcelain in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Book Review

With all the new research on early 18th-century attempts to make porcelain in America, this new book that tells the story of porcelain production in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries in Europe is timely. The author, Jeffrey Munger, is a former curator in the department of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The story of the quest to replicate imported Chinese porcelain in the West seems similar to the early days of the 20th-century technology revolution.
To tell the story Munger selected only 90 works from the Met’s vast collection of more than 4000 made in 27 European porcelain factories from the 16th to the mid-19th century. He explains why he made each selection, giving the reader lessons on connoisseurship. The book is a “museum without walls,” an exhibition to be enjoyed in an armchair. It includes glorious photographs and a curator telling you what you need to know in short essays, with footnotes and a long bibliography directing you where to find more information.

Elizabeth Sullivan, a former associate research curator in the Met’s European sculpture and decorative arts department, contributed an essay on the history of the collection and how it depended on collectors who were active during the mid-20th century, in particular from 1940 to the 1970s, when porcelain collecting reached a zenith in America. Among the collections assembled during this period were those amassed by New Yorkers Jack and Belle Linsky, Lesley G. and Emma Sheafer, Judge Irwin Untermeyer, Charles B. and Jayne Wrightsman, and R. Thornton Wilson, whose mother was Caroline Astor Wilson, the daughter of William Backhouse Astor and Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, “the” Mrs. Astor. Their gifts, along with inspired purchases by curators, enabled the Metropolitan Museum to present one of the most important European porcelain collections in the world.

Munger has organized each piece he illustrates and discusses by country of origin, then by founding date of the factory, and finally by the date each work was produced. Marks are illustrated, but not all works are marked. Condition is noted; many pieces have been repaired.

European Porcelain in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
by Jeffrey Munger, with an essay by Elizabeth Sullivan

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, distributed by Yale University
Press, 2018, 312 pages, hardbound, $65.

Munger describes the obsessive focus of noble patrons and artisans to make porcelain in the manner of the Chinese and the huge challenge it was to find the proper ingredients required and to develop the kilns that could fire the porcelain at very high temperatures.

Among the earliest attempts were those at the Medici workshops in Florence during the late 16th century. This resulted in the creation of the artificial porcelain known as soft paste that was made without the critical components of true porcelain, which is white china clay or kaolin combined with feldspathic rock, called petuntse, and fired at a high temperature to produce the non-porous white and often translucent ceramic body known as hard paste.

The sophistication of the Medici workshop, established in the 1560s, is evident in a small ewer painted in cobalt under the glaze with leafy branches, stylized flowers, and a standing male figure in Classical dress. It was inspired by Chinese blue-and-white porcelain found in the Medici collections but is “European in spirit.”

A large Medici dish in the Met’s collection is marked with the balls (palle) of the arms of the Medici. Each contains the initials of Francesco the First. It is the only piece marked with the grand ducal crown above the balls. The central medallion depicts King Saul falling upon his sword with a townscape in the distance. Munger says that despite the warping of the rim and blurring of the cobalt decorations, the dish is a “remarkable artistic achievement.” Further development of soft paste porcelain would not take place for another hundred years. Three hundred pieces of Medici porcelain were recorded in the Medici collection in the 18th century, but only 60 or 70 pieces survive today.

Before true or hard paste porcelain was discovered at Meissen in 1708 after several years of experimentation, all porcelain was soft paste. The first successful effort to produce soft paste porcelain in France took place in Rouen during the closing decades of the 17th century. Rouen was a major center for the production of faience, tin-glazed earthenware that lacks the durability, translucency, and thinness of porcelain. The Poterat family of faience makers in Rouen was the first to discover how to produce soft paste porcelain in France. Louis Poterat was granted a royal privilege to produce porcelain in 1673, and the factory probably ceased making it with his death in 1696. Nine pieces of soft paste porcelain have been identified as having been made in Rouen at the end of the 17th century, none of them marked, including the Met’s 5" tall potpourri jar. All nine identified examples have a gray-green tone and are decorated solely in cobalt, some with distinctive stippled decoration as found on the top and bottom registers of the potpourri jar and with an additional decoration of shaped panels. Munger calls the Met’s Rouen potpourri one of the “finest examples of early eighteenth-century French porcelain.”

A vase made at Saint-Cloud, 1695-1710, is among the first soft paste porcelain made in France on a commercial basis. It was first attributed to the Poterat factory in Rouen; the paste and glaze as well as its style point to Saint-Cloud porcelain, which was decorated in a style that reflects a blend of Chinese and European motifs.

Using stellar examples, Munger continues his ceramic history lessons with each French example. In his discussion of Vincennes porcelain, he explains how “the extreme whiteness of the soft paste porcelain, the sculptural sophistication, the rich enamel colors, and the interrelationship of the painted decoration to the form” of a vase reflect the high level of production at the Vincennes factory. Established in 1740 to the southeast of Paris, the factory was granted a royal privilege in 1745 to “manufacture…porcelain in the Saxon manner, painted and gilded and with human figures.” Vincennes enjoyed a monopoly in France for 20 years. Louis XV acquired a quarter of the factory’s shares in 1753 and assumed ownership in 1759. Plans were made to construct a new factory at Sèvres, southwest of Paris, and the Vincennes factory opened there three years later and was renamed Manufacture Royale de Sèvres. Munger writes of the circa 1752 Vincennes vase at the Met, “This vase was made at the moment when the influence of Meissen was waning and the transition to an entirely French style had begun.” He explains how a naturalistic painting style was favored, as seen in the floral decoration on the vase, and that the factory combined this decoration with very realistic sculptural flowers that were applied to the vase. Munger describes the vase as an “extremely sophisticated transition from the two-dimensional to the sculpted ones; one seamlessly melds into the other.” This is all enhanced by the twisted handles with applied sculptural morning glories. The vase’s design is attributed to Jean-Claude Duplessis (c. 1695-1774) and is considered among the factory’s finest production; the flower painting has been attributed by Linda Roth to Pierre-Louis-Philippe Armand (active 1749-88), “the finest flower painter at the factory.”

Munger delights in telling readers how porcelain was used. For example, a 1752-53 Vincennes soft paste ecuelle, a two-handled bowl intended to hold broth or soup, accompanied by a stand, allowed the broth to be sipped rather than consumed with a spoon. Broth or clear soup was commonly served as the morning beverage before coffee and tea were popular. It would have been consumed in private quarters, so ecuelles were produced as individual objects rather than parts of a dinner service, and the decoration was often more elaborate. The form was often based on a silver form of ecuelles. The finial of the one at the Met was formed as a still life grouping of a scallop shell, conch shell, fish, leek, and mushroom, which might have referred to the ingredients of the broth. The quality of its painted decoration—vignettes of marine creatures—makes it one of the finest works produced at Vincennes. The painting is attributed to Louis-Denis Armand, the elder (active 1746-88), who later went on to paint birds at Sèvres. This early work “remains among his most outstanding achievements.”

Munger calls the Rambouillet service made at Sèvres in 1787 for the dairy that King Louis XVI commissioned for Marie Antoinette “one of the most significant services” made at Sèvres during the 18th century. A bowl at the Met from this service shows that the service was designed in an austere Neoclassical style that reflected the nature of a pleasure dairy. The design was based on a collection of Greco-Roman pottery stored at Sèvres and on a publication of ancient vases owned by Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador to Naples. The restrained design without gilding represented “a radical departure stylistically” from contemporary wares made at Sèvres. Its simplicity of form and sculptural lines, with decorative bands of scrolling arabesques and anthemia painted on a white ground beneath the rim and on a pale blue ground on the bottom two-thirds of the bowl, is a departure from the elaborate vases usually made at Sèvres. Munger is not sure that Marie Antoinette ever saw the service. It is not known if she visited the dairy in 1787 or the following year. Moreover, the stylistic innovations reflected in the service never took hold because of the French Revolution (1789-99). Munger suggests that the 17 surviving pieces from the service provide a tantalizing indication of how taste at the factory might have evolved had it not been for the revolution.

The photo on the book’s dust jacket is an enlarged closeup of the lotus leaves and flowers painted in the Chinese manner on a hard paste Meissen covered tankard from 1725-30. August II, commonly known as Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony, king of Poland, had a huge collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelains that Meissen painters faithfully copied in part or full. The style of the lotus leaves on the tankard is taken from famille verte porcelains in a style promulgated by Johann Gregorius Horoldt (1696-1775). Munger is not willing to attribute the decoration to Horoldt, even though he says it is “one of the factory’s exceptional works” and remarkable for its size at 8⅞" high with the cover and also for its two continuous borders on the base and below the rim, partially painted in cobalt blue under the glaze and with gilding applied.

When discussing the selection of porcelain figures, many of them made at Meissen, Munger reminds readers that they were made to decorate the dining or dessert table. He discusses several commedia dell’arte figures, of which Harlequin is the best known, but he calls a Hochst group of the Chinese emperor with other figures “one of the most ambitious figure groups” in terms of scale and complexity. It was made as a centerpiece for a grouping of figures for a dining table. It is large, 1511/16" high x 131/16" wide x 89/16" deep. Four figures and a dog are arranged on a stepped platform under a baldachin with an openwork roof and cascading drapery. It is thought to be the earliest work of the modeler Johann Peter Melchior (German, 1742/47-1825). Its enamel decoration is finer than that found on four other examples of this model. The richly painted patterns on the textiles worn by the figures also show extensive gilding.

“One of the most ambitious projects” undertaken by any ceramic factory during the 18th century was the creation of a menagerie of life-size porcelain animals at Meissen in the first half of the 1730s. The Met has a lion and a lioness that were intended for Augustus the Strong’s Japanese Palace on the Elbe River in Dresden. Munger explains that they were to be colored naturalistically, but the fragile pieces could not withstand another firing, which was needed for enamel colors, and the cold oil painting colors did not adhere as well, darkening with time. Any original colors have been removed, and now the figures are considered all white, although the male lion still shows evidence of a pale blue coloring, which Munger says is “evidence of the technical struggles encountered in the production of these remarkable pieces of sculpture.” The lion and lioness are the work of Johann Gottlieb Kirschner (b. 1706), modeled in 1732. Seven male lions and five female lions from the group survive.

Munger also includes a number of porcelain sculptures. He describes the foot-high bust of Louis XV made at the Tournai factory in Belgium, circa 1756, as “one of the most remarkable porcelain sculptures produced in the eighteenth century.” Technically the bust is remarkable for its size and for the difficulties of firing soft paste on this scale. There is a firing crack that runs through the wig at the back of the neck that was filled in with a mixture of ground porcelain and glaze and hardened during a second firing. The details of the costume and drapery present a sense of drama. Few porcelain busts were made with an integral socle and base in the 18th century. It was more common for the base to be made separately. It is likely that the bust was inspired by a marble bust or a print of Louis XV at the height of his popularity. Similar busts were made at other French factories, but it not clear why a factory in the Austrian Netherlands would make an image of a French king with whom the country had recently been at war. Tournai continued to produce sculpture until the 1770s but rarely attempted a work of this scale.

The last piece of porcelain Munger discusses is a 71/16" high soft paste porcelain bust of King George II of Great Britain. It is not attributed to any factory, maker, or date with any certainty, but it is one of 19 examples known. The bust is considered “among the most ambitious porcelain sculpture attempted in eighteenth-century England.” Some scholars say it was made at the Vauxhall factory, circa 1760, and others suggest Bow, 1745-47. Munger believes it is not inconceivable that the busts were produced at a London factory about which nothing is currently known. New information on the English porcelain industry is regularly being discovered. The portrait is powerful; the careful rendering of the wig, cloak, and cuirass contribute to the portrait’s vigor. It is probable that a sculptor provided the model for the bust rather than a modeler at a porcelain factory, which further complicates identifying its origin.

These are only a few of the works made at 27 Austrian, Belgian, British, French, and Italian porcelain factories, some well known, such as Sèvres, Meissen, Chelsea, and Worcester, and others not so well known, such as the Antoine Pavie factory in Paris and St. James’s Factory/Charles Gouyn in London.

This is a good book to sit down with and read a few entries at a time. The 90 pieces of porcelain tell the story of European porcelain. The artists and artisans are identified as well as the investors in the factories, and the technical and artistic qualities and success of each piece are discussed. 

Originally published in the December 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest

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