By Donald-Brien Johnson
Known for its finely detailed figurines and exceptional tableware, Meissen is recognized as the first European maker of fine porcelain.
The company owes its beginnings to Johann Friedrich Bottger’s 1708 discovery of the process necessary for the manufacture of porcelain. “Rediscovery” might be a better term, since the secret of
producing hard paste porcelain had been known to the Chinese for centuries. However, Bottger, a goldsmith and alchemist, was the first to successfully replicate the formula in Europe. Soon after, The Royal Saxon Porcelain Works set up shop in Dresden. Because Bottger’s formula was highly sought after by would-be competitors, in 1710 the firm moved its base of operations to Albrechtburg Castle in Meissen, Saxony. There, in fortress-like surroundings, prying eyes could be successfully deflected. And because of that move, the company name eventually became one with its locale: Meissen.
The earliest Meissen pieces were red stoneware, reminiscent of Chinese work, and incised with Chinese characters. Porcelain became the Meissen focus in 1713; early releases included figurines and tea sets, the decorations reminiscent of baroque metal. In 1719, after Bottger’s death, artist J.J. Horoldt took over the firm’s direction. His Chinese-influenced designs, which employed a lavish use of color and decoration, are categorized as chinoiserie.
By the 1730s, Meissen employed nearly 100 workers, among them renowned modelers J.G. Kirchner and J.J. Kandler. The firm became known for its porcelain sculptures; subjects included birds, animals and familiar figures from commedia dell’arte. Meissen dinnerware also won acclaim; in earlier attempts, the company’s white porcelain had only managed to achieve off-white. Now, at last, there were dazzling white porcelain surfaces that proved ideal for the exquisite, richly colored decoration that became a Meissen trademark.
Following Horoldt’s retirement in the mid-1700s, Victor Acier became Meissen’s master modeler. Under Acier, the design focus relied heavily on mythological themes. By the early 1800s, however, Meissen’s popularity began to wane. With production costs mounting and quality inconsistent, changes were instituted, especially technical improvements in production that allowed Meissen to operate more efficiently and profitably. More importantly, the Meissen designs, which had remained relatively stagnant for nearly a century, were refurbished. The goal: to connect with current popular culture. Meissen’s artists (and its porcelain) proved perfectly capable of adapting to the prevailing tastes of the times. The range was wide: the ornate fussiness of the Rococo period; the more subdued Neoclassicism of the late 1700s; the nature-tinged voluptuousness of early 20th century Art Nouveau; and today’s Meissen, which reinterprets, and builds on, all of these design eras.
Despite diligent efforts, Meissen eventually found its work widely copied. A crossed-swords
trademark, applied to Meissen pieces from 1731 onward, is a good indicator of authenticity. However, even the markings had their imitators. Because Meissen originals, particularly those from the 18th and 19th centuries, are both rare and costly, the most reliable guarantee that a piece is authentic is to purchase from a reputable source.
Meissen porcelain is an acquired taste. Its gilded glory, lavish use of color, and almost overwhelmingly intricate detailing require just the right setting for effective display. Meissen is not background décor. These are three-dimensional artworks that demand full attention.
Meissen pieces also often tell a story (although the plots may be long forgotten): a cherub and a woman in 18th century dress read a book, surrounded by a bevy of shepherdesses; the goddess Diana perches on a clock above a winged head of Father Time; the painted inset on a cobalt teacup depicts an ancient Dresden cathedral approached by devout churchgoers. Unforgettable images all, and all part of the miracle that is Meissen.
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