Johann Friedrich Böttger, the father of Meissen porcelain, was a hard-drinking alchemist who moved from European court to European court in a vain attempt to turn lead into gold for his royal sponsors. His final failure was in the eastern part of present-day Germany, where Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, locked him in a laboratory until Böttger replicated the king’s other passion, Chinese porcelain.
According to Böttger’s kiln records, on January 15, 1708, after a 12-hour firing, the first true hard-paste porcelain body on the European continent was produced. It was white, translucent, and of fine enough quality to rival Chinese porcelain, which was treasured by European monarchs of the time. The secret was intense heat, a mineral called kaolin (today it is known as china clay), and the substitution of alabaster for petuntse, the latter of which is still used in a variety of ceramics.
Augustus was so taken with Böttger’s breakthrough that in 1710 he established the Royal Saxon Porcelain Manufactory in Meissen, just outside Dresden. Böttger had replicated the Chinese clay body, but it would take Meissen potters and painters (among them Johann Gregor Höroldt) a few more years to bring the glazes up to the king’s high standards. By the time of his death in 1733, Augustus had commissioned more than 35,000 porcelain pieces for his showplace “Japanese Palace” in Dresden.
Böttger was the Meissen factory’s first modeler until his death in 1719. Johann Gottlieb Kirchner joined the factory from 1727 until 1733, and made many of 1:1 scale animals for Augustus’s menagerie at the Palace — 597 animals and birds were envisioned, but only 458 were produced when the project was abandoned in 1739. More important than what Kirchner made was the person he mentored: Johann Joachim Kändler, who began his career in Meissen in 1731 and remained for 40 years.
Kändler is considered one of the most important ceramists of the 18th century, as are his Meissen assistants (Johann Friedrich Eberlein and Peter Reinicke being two of the most renowned). Their output was prodigious: Kändler alone is thought to have created more than 1,000 different figures or groups of figures, from swans to stags to squirrels.
One of the most collected series from this period was the Affenkapelle, or monkey band, consisting of 21 monkey musicians and a conductor. These were prized by collectors, as were Meissen figures of harlequins, dwarves, and hunchbacks. Other series focused on seasons, continents, dancers, and tradesmen.
Of course, Meissen dinnerware was also produced in dizzying arrays of plates and bowls and drinking vessels, each stamped with the factory’s famous crossed-swords mark on its base. Floral patterns copied from Chinese porcelain were favored, as were patterns using indigenous German flowers. The names of each service generally took its name from the predominant pattern. Thus the Yellow Lion and Red Dragon services for Augustus, or the Swan service for Count von Bruhl, who became the director of the factory in 1733...
The Seven Years’ War in 1756 ended the golden age of Meissen porcelain. The factory’s kilns were destroyed and just about all of its almost 600 workers fled. Frederick the Great of Prussia, who occupied Dresden during the war, tried to revive the factory by leasing it to an entrepreneur, who rebuilt the kilns and sold most of the factory’s wares to Frederick himself.
After the war and during the factory’s Marcolini years, 1774 to 1815, Meissen porcelain began to have more in common with French Sèvres porcelain. As for the style, it was less exuberant, conforming more to the prevailing Neo-Classic aesthetic than the quirky interests of a monarch like Augustus or the formidable talents of artists like Kändler and Höroldt.
Key terms for Antique Meissen China:
Hard-paste porcelain: A type of porcelain that is fired hot at 1400 degrees Celsius to produce a hard, white, and translucent body.