Meissen Porcelain Animals
Getty Conversations

A Fox with a Chicken and A Turkey were part of a menagerie of over 500 life-sized porcelain animals commissioned by Augustus II “The Strong.”

A Fox with a Chicken, c. 1732, Johann Gottlieb Kirchner, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, hard-paste porcelain with traces of oil paint, 46 x 34 x 20 cm (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) and A Turkey, c. 1733, Johann Joachim Kändler, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, hard-paste porcelain, 53.5 x 51 x 20 cm (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles). Speakers: Jeffrey Weaver, Associate Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, J. Paul Getty Museum and Steven Zucker, Executive Director, Smarthistory

Imagine a menagerie of over 500 life-sized porcelain animals displayed in a long gallery in a palace in Dresden. A Fox with a Chicken was a part of this new creation commissioned by Augustus II “The Strong” in the 18th century to share his love for Japanese porcelain with others.

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Galleries of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Getty Center, looking at two works of ceramic. These are porcelain, which in the early 18th century was precious material.

effrey Weaver: [0:19] Here you see a fox and a turkey. There’s an extraordinary story behind the commissioning and fabrication of these animals.

Dr. Zucker: [0:26] These were ordered by Augustus the Strong. He was the Elector of Saxony and also the king of Poland. He had financed the Meissen Manufactory. He had underwritten the creation of the first porcelain in Europe.

Jeffrey: [0:42] He was fascinated, as many other rulers in Europe at the time were, with Asian ceramics. He had one of the largest collections of Asian ceramics in Europe at the time, some 24,000 pieces. This inspired him to also establish his own porcelain manufactory at Meissen.

Dr. Zucker: [0:59] Porcelain that had been made in China began to enter into the European market in the 15th century. By the time we get to the early 18th century, there was an enormous appetite for this very precious material. It has an almost liquid surface, and yet it’s hard and allows for luminous color.

Jeffrey: [1:16] The Europeans had been fascinated by this material for a long time and were anxious to figure out how to make it. Augustus the Strong commissioned an alchemist to figure out how to make true hard-paste porcelain like that made in China and Japan. He was eventually able to make porcelain around 1710, the first porcelain made in Europe.

Dr. Zucker: [1:38] Augustus was not satisfied with replicating the work that was coming from Asia. He would eventually order a virtual menagerie of life-sized animals for his palace in Dresden, which became known as the Japanese Palace because it would also house many thousands of porcelain objects from China and Japan.

Jeffrey: [1:57] Where he got the idea for the commission of these life-size animals is a mystery, but it was to fill the very first long gallery of the upper floor. It was to house up to 500 of these porcelain animals in display of his wealth and his prestige. This type of porcelain of this size had not been attempted in Europe before.

Dr. Zucker: [2:19] He was pushing just to the edge of what was technically possible. The objects were skillfully designed to anticipate the limitations of firing such a large and heavy piece of porcelain, a process that inevitably resulted in at least some cracks, which are camouflaged to a great degree by the complexity of the surface, especially at the base.

Jeffrey: [2:41] You look at the way the fox is seated, he has his head forward and he’s grasping the chicken in his mouth. If you look at the way the chicken is formed, it falls down to the base as well. It’s serving as a support for the head of the fox, so the composition supports the ultimate success of this figure.

Dr. Zucker: [2:59] I want to go back to the issue of animals. Why would Augustus the Strong, who was trying to represent his taste, his wealth, and his oversight of this technical innovation…why would he choose animals? It might be useful to place this collection in the broader context of his palaces in and around Dresden.

Jeffrey: [3:21] He had a number of palaces and also a number of zoos or menageries of live, domestic, and exotic animals. He also had a collection of taxidermied animals. This signified a ruler, such as Augustus, his dominion over the natural world. Not just his own subjects, but also the animal world as well.

Dr. Zucker: [3:41] Looking at the fox closely, there is an anthropomorphic quality to him. He looks guilty, as if he’s stolen the chicken and he knows it’s wrong.

[3:50] There is a difference when we look at the turkey. Here, there seems to be less of the applying of human nature to the animal kingdom.

Jeffrey: [3:56] This is by the second artist who worked on this great commission. He was taking his inspiration initially from looking at prints, but eventually seems to have taken his inspiration from direct observation of some of these animals in the royal menageries.

[4:10] When you look closely at his head, the way the eye looks at you, it is as if he was not frozen in porcelain but come to life in front of you.

Dr. Zucker: [4:19] It’s true. When I look at him, it feels as if the feathers are rustling. Then, of course, there’s that wonderful snood that hangs down just above his beak and wraps back around in a remarkably elegant manner given that this is a turkey.

Jeffrey: [4:32] He’s displaying himself during the mating ritual. He’s making himself look as large and as impressive as possible. He is really standing in his full glory.

Dr. Zucker: [4:42] These animals seem to be such a product of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. This moment of scientific exploration, the moment of the curiosity cabinet, the zeal for collecting. They are an expression of a culture trying to understand the natural world as well as control it.

Jeffrey: [4:59] Each one of these is really a miracle of production and survival.

Dr. Zucker: [5:03] Given how prone to accident the production was for porcelain at this scale, being fired at extremely high temperatures, and given the delicacy of the figures and the centuries that have elapsed since they were produced, it is a miracle that we have these on display at the Getty.

[5:22] They are beautiful objects, in and of themselves, but to know the stories behind them, to know what they represented in terms of investment, in terms of technology, they truly come to life.

[5:33] [music]

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Cite this page as: Jeffrey Weaver and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Meissen Porcelain Animals
Getty Conversations," in Smarthistory, May 17, 2023, accessed May 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/meissen-porcelain-animalsgetty-conversations/.