Chinese and Japanese porcelains were highly esteemed in seventeenth-century Europe, and although they were imported in ever-increasing quantities throughout the century, Europeans did not know the ingredients necessary for the production of true porcelain, commonly known as hard-paste porcelain. However, in 1709 an alchemist named Johann Friedrich Böttger discovered the materials required to produce a white, translucent, high-fired porcelain body, and this discovery was to have profound consequences for the entire European ceramic industry.
Böttger’s experiments with the formula for porcelain included the development of a high-fired red stoneware, which led to several technological advances ultimately resulting in porcelain. This so-called Böttger stoneware was used both for wares and for figures, including one depicting Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony (1982.60.318). Augustus had provided the impetus for Böttger’s experiments and, based on the latter’s success, he established a factory at Meissen, just outside Dresden, in 1710. The factory was soon producing a creamy white porcelain now known as Böttger porcelain (42.205.26), becoming the first European manufactory of hard-paste porcelain. In the 1720s, the Meissen factory developed a new and extensive range of enamel colors, and the factory’s painters excelled in chinoiserie scenes. Fanciful depictions of life in an imagined and exotic Far East, chinoiseries were the most popular type of decoration during this decade (1974.356.488). One of the great achievements of the Meissen factory was the production of large-scale vases, which were difficult to fire successfully because of their size. Many of these vases were decorated with ground colors in imitation of Chinese porcelains, and chinoiserie scenes continued to be in vogue through the 1730s (1974.356.363). Frequently these vases are marked on the underside with the initials AR—for Augustus Rex—and it is likely that these objects were intended for Augustus’ use or to be given as royal gifts.
The most ambitious of all of the projects undertaken at Meissen for Augustus the Strong was the production of large-scale animals for the Japanese Palace, the building intended to house all of his porcelain collections. The size of these animals presented enormous technical difficulties, and even though the factory used a more resilient hard-paste porcelain body for the animals, many of them display fire cracks and other evidence of problems encountered during firing. Nevertheless, they represent a remarkable achievement and remain among the most significant of all porcelain sculpture (1988.294.1).
The second factory in Europe to produce hard-paste porcelain was founded in Vienna by Claudius Du Paquier (died 1751). Du Paquier was assisted by the former kiln master from Meissen, and the new enterprise was able to make hard paste by about 1719. The Du Paquier porcelain body was quite similar to that produced at Meissen, but the forms and styles of decoration employed at the Viennese factory were entirely original. The decoration on one Du Paquier flower vase seems to depict the director himself, seated near a group of porcelain objects, and the painted inscription calls attention to Vienna’s accomplishment in producing porcelain (54.147.94). The concept of a dinner service with matching components was still novel in the 1730s, and the first dinner service to be made in porcelain was ordered from Meissen in late 1731. Du Paquier produced a partial dinner service, possibly composed exclusively of tureens, as early as the mid-1720s, and in the years 1736–40 made another service—composed primarily of tureens and wine coolers—that Emperor Charles VI gave to the Russian empress Anna Ivanovna (1982.60.330).
The success of the Meissen and Du Paquier firms led to the establishment of other porcelain factories in Germany in the 1740s and 1750s, and it was often workers coming from either Meissen or Vienna who provided the necessary technical expertise to the new operations. The factory established at Höchst in the mid-1740s began production on a viable scale only after the arrival of J. J. Ringler from the Du Paquier factory. The Höchst factory employed a number of highly competent modelers, and the factory excelled in the production of figures. One of the most ambitious of these is the Audience of the Chinese Emperor (50.211.217), which was modeled by Johann Peter Melchior, director of the sculpture workshop beginning in 1767. This group probably decorated the table during the dessert course, accompanied by additional single figures also in a chinoiserie style.
Perhaps the most popular subjects for figures and groups were characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte. Porcelain figures depicting Harlequin, Columbine, Mezzetin, Isabella, and numerous others would have been instantly identifiable because of their costumes, for the traveling troupes of Italian commedia players had made these characters very familiar to eighteenth-century audiences. One of the greatest modelers of these figures was Franz Anton Bustelli, who worked at the Nymphenburg factory from 1754 until 1763. His figures (1974.356.525) always display a pronounced elegance and a slight exaggeration of pose that simultaneously reflects some essential aspect of the character’s personality.