Meissen Porcelain and Its Beginnings

May 11, 2015 Updated: May 18, 2015

When Europeans started to imitate Chinese porcelain in the 15th century, they were not entirely successful. They combined clay and glass, or various ingredients used to make glass, and created a thin translucent ware that looked like true porcelain. What they had managed to create, however, was what is called soft-paste porcelain.

Soft-paste porcelain has a glaze that is thicker and more transparent than that of true porcelain, and the product is also thicker and more brittle. It also scratches more easily.

Meissen china, Europe’s answer to the fine porcelains from the East, combined the research of alchemist J.P. Böttger and artist Johann G. Horoldt with the work of modeler Johann Kändler.

It soon became evident that Augustus II wanted more than pretty colors—he wanted porcelain with a plastic, or modeled quality.

In fact, glazed white porcelain was first made in Europe in 1708 by Böttger while he was employed by King Augustus II of Poland, which means that Poland can rightfully claim the discovery of hard-paste porcelain in the West. The king was so pleased that he founded the Meissen factory near Dresden in 1710. This is where the first hard-paste porcelain in Europe was produced.

The first pieces were often modeled on silver forms. Decoration, usually floral, was in primitive enamel colors with gilding or sometimes a purple luster. By the end of the Böttger period (before 1719), Europe saw the first chinoiseries in gilt applied to various pieces. From 1720 to 1735, the factory employed Horoldt, a renowned chinoiserie artist, and because a whiter body had been achieved, some truly beautiful coffee pots and other table wares were made, often with motifs based on Japanese flower painting.

Before his death around 10 years later, Böttger had developed a wide range of coloring materials, and for the next 20 years this work was continued by Horoldt. It soon became evident that Augustus II wanted more than pretty colors—he wanted porcelain with a plastic, or modeled quality. And that is what he got when Kändler was appointed court modeler.

Kändler initiated a period of great development in plastic decoration, and the king was therefore supplied with the colossal figures he demanded. Today, what we sometimes find at auctions or antique shops include European porcelain with both genuine and fake marks—even though they are highly reputed. The marks are often forged so it is difficult to tell if a piece is truly from the period represented.

The skillful modeling of the figures and exquisite ornamentation of floral bouquets and garlands is reminiscent of a world of beauty and charm, of 18th century elegance and luxury, of gallantry and recklessness. Serious Meissen collectors would be well-advised to arrange a visit to the Gardiner Museum in Toronto to see what true Meissen looks like.

Susan Hallett is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for The Beaver, The Globe & Mail, Wine Tidings, and Doctor’s Review, among others. She may be contacted at hallett_susan@hotmail.com.