Co-curators Jeffrey Munger and Meredith Chilton discuss the details of a delightful dessert table—created in conjunction with the Du Paquier exhibition—with culinary historian Ivan Day.
Jeffrey Munger: I’m Jeffrey Munger, Curator of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I’m the co-curator of the exhibition "Imperial Privilege: Vienna Porcelain of Du Paquier, 1718–44" that will be on view at the Met from September 22 through March 21, 2010. I’m with two colleagues: Meredith Chilton, my co-curator, an independent art historian from Canada; and Ivan Day, noted culinary historian from England.
With this exhibition, we are trying to tell the story of Du Paquier porcelain, which is not well known in this country, and we wanted to enhance the presentation of this extraordinary material with the creation of a dessert table, to give a sense of dining at this time and the importance attached to dining and table settings in the eighteenth century. Meredith, tell me what the inspiration was for the dessert table.
Meredith Chilton: This table has been inspired by an engraving of a very particular dinner that was held on November 22, 1740, in Vienna. It celebrated an event. It was the swearing of the Oath of Allegiance by the lower estates of Austria to the future empress of Austria, Maria Theresa. The day was a full one for Maria Theresa. She started off with a service in the cathedral, with the taking of the Oath of Allegiance, and then with a dinner. Her dinner was a state dinner. Now, we think of state dinners these days when the president holds a dinner, or, say, the Queen of England holds a dinner. She invites lots of guests to the table, it’s held in an important room, and only those guests attend and actually see what’s going on. Well, state dinners in the eighteenth century were very different matters. Usually only the monarch or the very close members of the imperial family would have actually eaten at the table, while the rest of the court would have watched. It was like public dining. It was a very particular event, and very special. You imagine how you’d have to have watched your table manners.
The engraving that we used as our inspiration shows Maria Theresa, the archduchess of Austria and future empress, with her husband Francis Stephen of Lorraine. And they were actually eating the second course. There were usually three courses to a banquet: the first one consisted mainly of savory foods and a soup; the second was also mainly savory foods with roasted meats added, sometimes a few pies and sweet things; and then there was the culmination, the great theatrical event, which was the dessert.
Now, what’s interesting about the engraving that we have is that on the table are two amazing sugar sculptures of large temples with flowers. And these would have been put on the table from the outset and they would have slept—they’re called dormants in French—and they would have been awakened during the dessert course, when the other sweet things would have been brought to the table. We don’t have an engraving of the dessert course, so what we have done is imagined how it was. We are giving an evocation of how this dessert table might have been for Maria Theresa.
Jeffrey Munger: For the creation of this table, we've been extremely fortunate to have Ivan Day’s involvement. I think it’s safe to say no one knows more about dining history and customs than Ivan, and certainly no one has greater skills in creating the sugar sculptures. They were such an important component of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century dining. Ivan, the question that always comes to me as we’ve been installing this exhibition is "What exactly is sugar sculpture?" and, on the most basic level, "Is it edible?"
Ivan Day: Well, Jeffrey, you’ve said that porcelain was a very new medium. The sugar paste that the table sculpture is made from is much older. It had been around in Europe for at least a couple of hundred years and ultimately probably came from the Middle East, where the sugar and the binding agent that you make the material to make the sculpture, comes from. This is a gum called gum tragacanth, and it just turns powdered sugar with the addition of a little bit of water into a wonderful, malleable paste, which, actually, in all of its characteristics, is remarkably similar to porcelain.
We probably got the custom of making table ornaments that were edible, again, from the Middle East. They were pretty well standard in the late medieval period at most European courts. And the table sculpture often had an allegorical program. If it was a coronation feast, it might have symbols in the figures of the saints that were on the table that might be related to the future monarch. This particular table is adorned with what I would call sugar architecture, rather than sugar sculpture, in the form of two pavilions, which are known as baldecchini—baldecchino, singular—and they’re in a very baroque style. What I’ve tried to do is use my knowledge of the history of art to try and enhance these rather vague illustrations that are in the engraving. But they have spiral-twisted columns, solomonic columns, which originated in the Temple of Solomon, and these were always a challenge, whether you made them from marble, bronze, or from sugar paste. But they really give the table this wonderful lift.
Underneath them, in the engraving, there is a pyramid of flowers. Now, the time that this event took place was a time when there were not many fresh flowers around, so we can assume that they were probably artificial. The ones underneath the two baldecchini are made of paper and some are silk. And probably the reason for not having fresh flowers was that the smell of the lilies and the other aromatic plants disturbed the sense of taste.
As well as the silk and paper flowers, there are a number of sugar flowers, or pastiage, as it was known in France, which, again, is made from exactly the same material: sugar and gum mixed together. And these are very challenging to make, but I have made them using the techniques of the eighteenth century, which are described in some French texts, but also the materials of that period, too. So all of the pigments are ones that were used. And these were not edible pigments. So, to answer Jeffrey’s question, the flowers are not edible, because the little forget-me-nots, with their wonderful azure blue, are actually colored with lapis lazuli ground up, which is what was used. What you’re looking at here is this extraordinary theatrical setting—if you like, an arcadia in miniature on the table in which all the wonderful porcelain figures can cavort and perform amongst the table sculpture.
Jeffrey Munger: Meredith, why don’t you describe the table?
Meredith Chilton: First we laid the table with a fine, white linen cloth, which has been folded into squares, and the creases are still visible, as they would have been at the period. Then, on this cloth, we have laid a symmetrical arrangement of dishes. The dishes are filled with fruits and confections for the dessert. The two pavilions sit in the middle, side by side. They are beautifully sculptured in white sugar paste and are filled inside with wonderful paper flowers in multi-colors.
There are places set for two diners with beautiful Du Paquier porcelain from the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, and, also, we are very fortunate to have dessert knives and forks with Du Paquier porcelain handles from a great private collection. In addition, the table is enlivened by all kinds of other wonderful things in porcelain. There is an exquisite lemon basket with pierced sides, decorated very finely with naturalistic flowers and a type of ornamentation that is known as laub und bandelwerk. It’s a decorative ornamental strapwork, which is exquisite, and you have to come and see it. In addition, there is an endearing dish with a panther on it, and it is filled with delicious figs. The panther is looking straight at you as you come to the table. His tongue is hanging out. He can’t wait to taste some of these sugar delights. There are also little saucers with confections that I’ll ask Ivan to describe in a minute. And then there are porcelain sculptures. There are two large figures of ladies dancing, and then smaller sculptures of white porcelain inspired by characters from the commedia dell’arte. Ivan, tell us more about the confections on the table.
Ivan Day: Well, the first thing you’ve got to realize is that the fruit are not real fruits, and they may not have been on the original table. Because there was this idea of artifice and producing something that was incredibly skillful, and the people who made this were not cooks. They were the confectioners—the imperial confectioners—who were extraordinarily skillful. I mean, they could rustle up flowers out of a little bit of paste, and they made artificial fruits that were edible, but which were so trompe l’oeil—looked so like the original ones—that the future empress would not have been able to tell the difference. So we’ve gone really for artificial fruit.
So this wonderful panther-formed sweetmeat dish is full of an actual eighteenth-century fig called the Monaco fig, which was a royal purple, which I think is a very appropriate color for this occasion. And it harmonizes beautifully with the colors of the panther dish, which are also a lovely purple. We think the dish may have originally been used for holding grapes, so, again, purple would have been an appropriate dominant color. The sweetmeats in the little dishes are actually early eighteenth and mid-eighteenth century, ubiquitous sweeties that were offered at every party in the courts of Europe. We have things which in Italy were known as diavolini, in France as diabolata, and these are the first European chocolates, and they’re covered with little dragées—little sugar-coated seeds—which actually meant that the guests wouldn’t have the very butter-rich chocolate melting in their fingers. So this coating that didn’t melt goes back a couple of hundred years ago.
Of course, this is an occasion in Vienna, so we have these lovely crescent-shaped biscuits, which are very much an iconic sweetmeat still in Austria. There are wafers, rolled wafers, which were very fine and delicate and had hardly any calorific value. You’d just eaten two courses of soups and meats and fish so the dessert courses tended to be very light. The dessert foods tended to be very, very light.
Nearly all of the sweetmeats in the little dishes have been made using eighteenth-century wooden molds. The confectioners would press their various marzipan pastes and sugar pastes and other materials into these little intaglio forms and bang them out on the table and let them dry.
There are little cupids with wings, which have been gilded. They don’t look like sweets but they are; they’re edible. The thing that’s missing from the table is the drink that you washed all these wonderful sweet delicacies down with, and at the court—well, particularly the eastern courts in Russia, but also in Austria—the most popular dessert wine was Tokay, this wonderful, sweet wine from Hungary that almost certainly would have featured on this table to wash these wonderful sweeties down.
Jeffrey Munger: This is the first exhibition devoted solely to the works produced by the Du Paquier manufactory. Little is known about Claudius Innocentius du Paquier himself, other than that he died in 1751. He seems to have been more of an entrepreneur than a potter, and yet there’s such a distinct sense of personality to the wares produced in his factory that it seems clear that he must have played a major role in setting the artistic standards for the factory’s works. His works have been little appreciated until the last several decades. They’re not well represented in American public collections, and the Metropolitan is particularly fortunate to have a very strong collection. We are delighted to be able to show the best of our objects with those from the premier private collection of this material owned by Melinda and Paul Sullivan. And it gives us an opportunity to reassess the rather extraordinary success of this small enterprise in Vienna that lasted for only twenty-five years.
The exhibition was conceived to mark the publication of the first study devoted solely to Du Paquier called Fired by Passion: Vienna Baroque Porcelain of Claudius Innocentius du Paquier that is a major contribution to ceramic studies. The exhibition features more than a hundred pieces of porcelain made at the Du Paquier manufactory and offers, really, an extraordinary opportunity to reevaluate the many successes of this quirky but delightful ceramic enterprise.
The exhibition is made possible by Eloise W. Martin and the Melinda and Paul Sullivan Foundation for the Decorative Arts. Thank you very much for joining us.