Eighteenth Century Figures – Theater, Dance & Porcelain

Lover’s of continental porcelain need to take notice, as a cultural spotlight shines on a single gallery in the Morgan Memorial Building of The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. This jewel box of an exhibition is small in size, but significant and visually stunning. The rationale of the show is to examine the impact of theater and dance on 18th century porcelains and is intended as a counterpoint to the equally agreeable Ballets Russes to Balanchine on view at the museum through January 2, 2005.

One of the most prized segments of the Wadsworth Atheneum’s permanent collection is a large group of French and German 18th century porcelains, many of them bequeathed by John Pierpont Morgan in 1917. It is one of the major collections in the United States today, and is heavily weighted toward porcelain figures by Meissen and Nymphemburg. It also includes wonderful French pieces from both Vincennes and Sèvres, all of which are well represented in this exhibition.

Commedia dell’Arte

“Because theater, opera, dance, and music were very important to court life,” commented Linda Roth, Curator of European Decorative Arts at the museum, “these porcelain figures were created for the very wealthy who participated in these pursuits.” Performances included amateur theatricals as well as professional productions, and comprised comedies, tragedies, ballet-pantomimes, opera-ballets, and performances by traveling groups. The Commedia dell’Arte inspired many of these figures. These were traveling troupes of players that date back to the 16th century. They were popular both in the town squares and at court, and loved by rich and poor alike. The troupes offered improvisational theater at its best that revolved around stock characters like Columbine, Harlequin, Scaramouche, Pulcinella, and Pierrot. Though the commedia disappeared by the beginning of the 19th century, we still recognize the players today.

The porcelain figures inspired by the actors and characters of the Commedia dell’Arte are among the most exciting ceramics created during the 18th century. They still pose and preen; they pursue or seek escape; they dance and play musical instruments. The characters are as alive today as when they were first produced. Many figures feature elaborate costumes based on the very height of 18th century fashion. The Pantaloon and Columbine dating from 1741 is richly decorated in yellow, green, cobalt, and iron red. Here Columbine rebuffs the elderly and lustful Pantaloon with a flirtatious push against his bearded chin.

Of Meissen men

Equally beautiful is the Harlequin with a Jug dating to 1738 and modeled by J.J. Kandler. The masked character in multi-colored windowpane costume is frozen in time. Each of the figures is strikingly individual, a powerful and solitary sculpture in its own right, and a tribute to the ingenuity and artistic genius of the Meissen factory.

The theme of Italian comedy found its way into the Meissen inventory during its first years in existence. According to Gerhard Robbig, the Dresden sculptors Balthasar Permoser, Benjamin Thomae, and Paul Herrmann created a series of figures of Italian comedians especially for the manufactory between 1710 and 1712. Others inspired by images from the 1728 Histoire du Theatre Italien by Luigie Riccoboni were modeled by Peter Reinecke and J.J. Kandler. According to Roth, the Atheneum collection includes over a dozen such figures and groups representing a variety of characters including the infamous Harlequin, Mezzetin, Pantaloon, and Columbine. There are additionally a small number of figures from other European factories, namely Ansbach and Doccia.

Vincennes and Sèvres

The French porcelains from Vincennes have quite a different look and design approach. These soft paste pieces are larger in scale and completely white. “In France, the Vincennes-Sèvres factory produced several figural groups based on the ballet-pantomime La Vallée de Montmorency by Charles-Simon Favart, which was performed at the Theatre Italien in Paris in 1752,” commented Ms. Roth. Francois Boucher painted several
works based on this production, which then became the source for at least three porcelain compositions, Grape Eaters, Flute Lesson, and Jealousy, all represented in the exhibit. The groups are intricately modeled and deliciously coated in a soft creamy glaze. It is interesting to note that the very same figures were also produced unglazed in biscuit.

Other French porcelains include three Sèvres soft paste garniture pots circa 1767, polychrome painted on bleu celeste ground. Floral bouquets appear on the reverse and the fronts offer figures and animals in a landscape by Nicolas Dauphin de Beauvais after François Boucher. Three bleu nouveau vases produced at Sèvres using Boucher compositions based on Favart appear in the show as well.

The first floor gallery

The exhibition is divided into three sections. The first consists of objects influenced by French theater. The second has as its focus dance and opera in the 18th century. Meissen is well represented here as well as in the third area dominated by figures inspired by Italian Comedy. The last is the largest section and includes a table setting using Nymphemburg polychrome figures that offers the visitor a look at the purpose of figures such as these. Not all were intended for cabinets. They often appeared in elaborate table settings along with spun sugar decorations.

“These porcelain figures are important to us today because they are a kind of record of 18th century court life, especially in Germany,” noted curator Linda Roth. “Here we have a window on what it must have been like for aristocrats of this period.” It is obvious from the point of view of many art forms that theater and dance was important. Can we find a parallel today? Roth is careful not to trivialize the influence of theater and dance on 18th century porcelain figures, but feels that our enthusiasm for action figures from movies as reflected in the toy industry might give us some sort of comparison. Just as in today’s movies, the Commedia dell’Arte crossed all sorts of class barriers from the lowest social order to the rarified elite. Though socially important to us today, one wonders if they will please the public as much as this exhibition after the passing of 250 years?

Theater, Dance, and Porcelain in the Eighteenth Century, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, October 23, 2004 - April 10, 2005, 600 Main Street, Hartford, CT 06103, (860) 278-2670.

Written By: Helen H. Hill
Source: New England Antiques Journal