The Meissen Porcelain Manufactory
For more than 300 years the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory has been a central figure in European porcelain. The factory is located about 12 miles outside of Dresden, the capital city of Saxony in present day Germany. For many years it was common to refer to porcelain produced at Meissen as Dresden or Saxony China. In more modern times it is almost always referred to as Meissen Porcelain to avoid confusion with the products of other porcelain factories from the region.
It was at Meissen that the first true hard-paste porcelain was manufactured outside of China, and the story of that accomplishment has the high drama of fiction - all the more intriguing because it is true. As the first European manufacturer, Meissen's early works are certainly among some of the most sought after and valuable of porcelain pieces. However, the factory has continued to produce artful and highly collectible porcelain throughout the centuries. Every collector can afford to own a Meissen.
By the start of the 18th century there was considerable motivation across Europe to develop porcelain equal to that of the Chinese. Porcelain had emerged as a symbol of wealth and status, and the nobility were importing it from China at such a rate as to strain their treasuries. The Chinese, for obvious reasons, guarded the secrets of porcelain production. There had been several attempts to produce domestic porcelain in Italy and France during the 16th and 17th centuries, but the result was a less-than satisfactory soft-paste porcelain.
Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, had a legendary accumulation of Chinese and Japanese porcelain and a particular interest in solving the mystery of its production. He funded a major research project and the secrets were ultimately unraveled by scientist Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus and alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger (Bottger).
Böttger was a colorful character indeed. He had originally fled imprisonment in Berlin, having aroused the unwelcome attentions of Frederick of Prussia when he bragged that he could produce gold from lesser metals. Upon arrival in Saxony, he found himself detained instead by Augustus who set him to work making gold. After several years work and no gold to show, Augustus sent Böttger to prison as a fraud.
Meanwhile, Tschirnhaus had been at work for several years under Augustus' commission to produce porcelain. He had met with little success and was undoubtedly starting to feel the pressure. In 1707 Tschirnhaus arranged for Böttger's release from prison and the two men began working together on the porcelain problem. Some evidence of the pressure to produce can be seen in the fact that their first combined effort was to produce a tin-glazed earthenware wholly unrelated to their later work and believed by historians as intended simply to appease the King.
The first real success the pair had was to produce in 1708 a red stoneware that was so hard it could be cut and polished in the same fashion as gemstones to achieve the appearance of a glaze. Although the red stoneware did not meet the final goal, the material known as Böttgersteinzeug proved popular and was produced until about 1730. The earliest red stoneware pieces were inspired by Chinese Yi-hsing designs. Additional original designs were created by the Court silversmith Johann Jakob Irminger.
Shortly after the successful production of Böttgersteinzeug, the pair arrived at a recipe for white glazed porcelain made from the white burning china-clay (kaolin) and alabaster. Tschirnhaus died in late 1708 and therefore never saw production of this early, true porcelain. The first successful firings took place in 1709 and in March 1710 the Royal Saxon Porcelain Manufacture was officially established at Albrechtsburg Castle in Meissen.
It should be noted that it took some time for the techniques of porcelain production at Meissen to be perfected, and perhaps more importantly to discover a local source for china-stone which was preferable to alabaster. Böttger died in 1719, and by roughly that time Meissen was capable of producing porcelain whiter and higher fired than Chinese works.
Two luminary figures in the early days of the Meissen factory helped to solidify its place in history.
Johann Gregorius Höroldt (Herold, Horoldt) came to Meissen in 1720 from Vienna. He was skilled at enamel work and his abilities greatly expanded the colors available for decorating porcelain pieces. Of equal significance were his stylistic contributions, particularly in his mastery of chinoiserie, a popular style which incorporated Chinese imagery and courtly themes.
Johann Joachim Kändler (Kaendler) began as an assistant at Meissen and in 1733 become chief modelmaster. Kändler's talent for creating figures large and small earned him the moniker of the "modeler of Dresden figures" and was as important as any other innovations in solidifying Meissen's role in the forefront of porcelain craft of the 18th century. His work included large animals, ornate table services, and intricate harlequins.
The Prussian occupation of Meissen during the Seven Years War (1756-1763) was a signficant setback for production at the factory. Frederick the Great's forces destroyed kilns and other equipment. Frederick restarted operations in about 1757, but the output was almost exclusively intended for himself.
After the war ended, Meissen struggled to regain its earlier prominence with mixed results. During the Academic period (1763-1774) and the Marcolini period (1774-1814), the factory continued to produce fine porcelain but struggled financially due to vastly increased competition, the Napoleonic wars, and general economic hardships in the German states.
By the end of the Marcolini period, Meissen was once again on solid footing and regained its place as Europe's premier manufacturer of porcelain. Through the 19th century Meissen produced popular figurines and tableware sets, which were for the most part reinterpretations of its earlier works which became very popular in Britain and America. The 19th century work remains in high demand to this day, and the values often rival those of 18th century pieces.
Toward the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Meissen toyed briefly with contemporary movements such as Art Nouveau. The political and social turmoil of the 20th century saw Meissen first engulfed in World War II, and then operating under Communist rule. Production continued, but these realities did have a chilling effect on the creative freedoms of the factory. Since 1991 Meissen has been run as a public limited company owned by the State of Saxony. The factory currently produces jewelry, tableware and figurines, all enthusiastically sought by collectors.
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