The Chinese Emperor

Manufactory Höchst Manufactory German
attributed to Johann Peter Melchior German

Not on view

This remarkable sculpture was almost certainly produced as the centerpiece for a grouping of figures made to decorate a dining table. In both scale and complexity, it is one of the most ambitious figure groups produced at Höchst, and it is further distinguished by its enamel decoration, which is more detailed and finer than that found on the four other known examples of this model.[1] The group depicts the Chinese emperor holding a scepter and seated beneath a baldachin on a stepped platform. The figure standing closest to the Chinese emperor presents the other two figures, both representing the Arts and, by extension, the enlightened patronage of the emperor. The other standing figure, who wears a laurel crown, holds a book under his arm and points to emblems of the arts, including a painter’s palette and the sculpted head of a putto, placed on the lower step of the platform. The kneeling and bowing figure holds an unfurled scroll with fanciful writing. The complexity of the figural composition is both enhanced and framed by the prominent architectural feature of the baldachin with an openwork roof, cascading drapery, and supports in the form of large, asymmetrical C-scrolls.

The authorship of this highly sophisticated composition has been debated,[2] but the group is commonly attributed to Johann Peter Melchior (German, 1742/47–1825), who began working at Höchst in 1765, the year before this model was created.[3] Melchior was to become one of the most accomplished and prolific modelers in all of Europe, and The Chinese Emperor is his earliest known work. Because of the artistic and technical skill that the group represents, Horst Reber suggests that Melchior may have been aided by the modeler Laurentius Russinger (German, 1739–1810), who had served as head modeler at Höchst for six years at the time Melchior joined the factory.[4] Melchior must have been inspired by another Höchst figure group, The Sultan of Turkey, which was created sometime before 1753.[5] In this earlier group, the sultan sits on a throne with a small baldachin above, surrounded by attendants who appear to represent both African and Chinese servants. The exoticism of the group, which was modeled by Johann Christoph Ludwig von Lücke (German, 1703–1780),[6] is heightened by the addition of a monkey climbing a palm tree located behind the figures. While the basic composition of Melchior’s The Chinese Emperor follows that of The Sultan of Turkey, the poses of Melchior’s figures, the skill with which they are modeled, and their spatial relationship to one another are far more accomplished, and the intended exotic nature of the subject is indicated more subtly.
It is almost certain that Melchior designed his composition with larger groupings in mind, and he modeled figures of Chinese musicians and, somewhat later, Chinese children that were intended to augment the centerpiece.[7] While it is not known how many figures were created, it is likely that their numbers and arrangement in relation to The Chinese Emperor varied each time the table was set. Sometime after 1766, Melchior created a second large porcelain group that depicts the Chinese emperor standing, which clearly was intended to supplement his first group as part of a large table display.[8]

The painted and gilded decoration on the back of this example of The Chinese Emperor reflects its intended position in the center of a table, visible from all sides. The Museum’s Chinese Emperor is decorated with unusual elaboration, which is seen most readily in the profusion of dense patterns that delineate the textiles worn by the four figures. The robes and the decorative border of the textile that covers the platform are painted with considerable detail and precision, and they incorporate a more extensive use of gilding than is normally found. It is not inconceivable that this group was intended for the archbishop-elector of Mainz, Emmerich Joseph von Breidbach-Bürresheim (1707–1774), who actively supported the porcelain factory after assuming his title in 1763 until his death in 1774. Not only was the model of this group the most ambitious of any produced at Höchst up to this point but also the parallel suggested between the archbishop- elector’s rule and that of the cultivated Chinese emperor would not have been lost on anyone viewing this exceptional centerpiece.[9] The particularly lavish decoration of this example would have made it suitable for a noble table.[10]

(For key to shortened references see bibliography in Munger, European Porcelain in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018)
1 Lessmann 2006, p. 75; Detroit Institute of Arts (51.59); collection of Höchst AG, Höchst (Jacob-Hanson 1998, pl. I); Reber 2005, pp. 34–36.
2 Georges Brunel in Pagodes et dragons 2007, p. 175.
3 An example of The Chinese Emperor was fired in January 1766; Reber 2005, p. 34.
4 Ibid., pp. 34–35.
5 This group is illustrated in Morley-Fletcher 1993, vol. 1, pp. 70–71.
6 For more information about The Sultan of Turkey, see Reber 2005, pp. 29–30.
7 Lessmann 2006, p. 75. One of these figures is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (C.934- 1919).
8 Reber 1997, p. 19, fig. 3.
9 Jacob- Hanson 1998, pp. 340–41.
10 For a less elaborately decorated example of this model, see Reber 1997, p. 16, fig. 2.

The Chinese Emperor, Höchst Manufactory (German, 1746–1796), Hard-paste porcelain decorated in polychrome enamels, gold, German, Höchst

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