Porcelain sculpture may be considered the quintessential eighteenth-century European art form. The ubiquity of porcelain today can mask its significance in the eighteenth century; whereas we associate the material primarily with commercially manufactured utilitarian wares, in the eighteenth century porcelain was a material with enormous symbolic significance. Mastering the technology required for the production of hard-paste porcelain was a major scientific and technical innovation with important economic effects. This new wonder material – translucent, infinitely malleable, possessed of lustrous shine – immediately assumed a vital representational role in the culture of the Saxon court where Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, an ardent collector of Asian porcelains, financed the pursuit of the porcelain Arcanum. The products of the factory founded by Augustus at Meissen in 1710 were the proof of Saxon scientific, economic and cultural superiority, and gifts of porcelain made by the court to the princes of Europe served to advertise Augustus’s power and prestige.1 Very quickly, other European rulers began striving to establish porcelain manufactories of their own; the medium rapidly began to reflect an absolutist prince’s glory and, through mastery of its production, served to demonstrate their right to power.

From the outset, some of the finest artists of the day turned their attention to this new material. Imported white Chinese porcelain votive figures from Dehua, highly prized by seventeenth-century European collectors, had already revealed the ceramic’s sculptural potential. In Dresden, court silversmith Johann Jacob Irminger (1635–1724) designed some of the earliest vessel forms executed in the medium, and the great German Baroque sculptors Balthasar Permoser (1651–1732) and Johann Benjamin Thomä (1682–1751) – at the time employed in Dresden on various building projects – provided sculptural details to embellish vessels, as well as models to be executed as independent sculptural works. While working with his master in Dresden, Thomä’s talented student Johann Joachim Kändler (1706–1775) came to the attention of Augustus the Strong who employed him in the modelling workshops at Meissen. Here Kändler was to aid the sculptor Johann Gottlieb Kirchner (1706–1768) in producing a monumental porcelain menagerie for Augustus’s great Japanese Palace project.

Kändler displayed an inherent understanding of the sculptural possibilities of the new porcelain medium and quickly eclipsed Kirchner at Meissen; he was appointed as the factory’s chief modeller in 1733 and held the position for the rest of his life. Undoubtedly the greatest ceramic sculptor in the history of European art, Kändler drew upon the Baroque tradition of cabinet sculpture, or Kleinplastik – small-scale sculptures intended to be handled and appreciated at close quarters – to create an entirely new sculptural genre: the small-scale porcelain figure. Kändler’s unbounded creativity in this field effectively established the parameters for eighteenth-century porcelain sculpture as an art form, codifying the format and the types of subjects represented; with rare exceptions, nearly every European porcelain factory copied figures created by Kändler at Meissen.2 Even other great porcelain sculptors, such as Franz Anton Bustelli (1723–1763) and Johann Peter Melchior (1742–1825), for all their originality, could not escape the influence of Kändler.3

Drawing upon a diverse range of sources, including prints and sculptures, as well as the artists’ own fertile imaginations, the subject matter represented by eighteenth-century porcelain figures encompassed the entire spectrum of contemporary European civilisation, from representations of the various echelons of the absolutist social order to theatrical characters, allegories, princely portraits, political memorials and religious subjects. The fact that the medium was deemed appropriate for such elevated subjects emphasises the high regard in which it was held. All of these images were deployed in the rich culture of visual spectacle which characterised the courts of eighteenth-century Europe.

In addition to Kleinplastik, another important influence on the development of porcelain sculpture was the tradition of festive table decoration. Originating in the mid 1730s, this Saxon court custom of decorating the dessert table with displays of porcelain figures and architectural elements developed out of the earlier Baroque court dining practice of adorning the table with sugar or wax figures, a practice which itself harked back to the medieval period.4 These table displays, examples of the type of ephemeral theatrical spectacles so important to Baroque court culture, were carefully choreographed.5 The subject matter was calculated both to reference the occasion being celebrated and to flatter the attendees.6 A scene of Classical deities might pay homage to assembled nobility; characters from the commedia dell’arte (improvised masked theatre) or tradespeople might subtly reference the costumes worn by aristocrats at courtly masquerades.7 The visual language of theatre and dance informed much small-scale porcelain sculpture, and gestures and poses of many porcelain figures record courtly deportment and gestural language; details of costume also reflect the overlapping worlds of court and theatre. Symbolic of material and cultural achievement, porcelain was employed by ruling elites to depict themselves; projecting their splendour and authority.

Producing porcelain and retaining skilled porcelain artists was costly; most Continental porcelain factories were unable to sustain themselves through commercial operations alone, and relied on princely financial patronage to function. Effectively they were court institutions whose output served the interests of the state. The context for the production of porcelain sculpture in England, however, was different. English porcelain factories were largely commercial concerns, dependent on finding markets for their creations to survive. This fact meant that only a handful of the more than twenty porcelain factories founded in England in the second half of the eighteenth century survived into the nineteenth century. With a few exceptions, such as the sculptor Joseph Willems at Chelsea, the English factories were rarely able to retain sculptors of the calibre working at the best Continental factories. The need to appeal to a broader consumer base than a court nobility meant that a number of English factories moved beyond imitating German and French models to explore new, often topical, subject matter in their sculptural work, including celebrity actors from the London stage, the pantheon of British literary heroes and notable, often controversial, political figures.8

As the eighteenth century progressed and a greater distribution of wealth across various social ranks saw porcelain objects become available to an ever greater section of society, the material began to lose some of its mystique and its associations with princely splendour were diluted. Porcelain’s aesthetic status was diminished, too, by the rise of Neoclassicism in art. The Neoclassicists lionised monumental marble and bronze sculpture, original examples of which survived from the Classical world and which for them embodied the eternal truths of Classical civilisation. By contrast, porcelain sculpture was diminutive and fragile and thus deemed ephemeral and feminine. The standing of porcelain sculpture began an inexorable decline, from court art to vernacular kitsch, a status that continues to obscure much of its original significance and power today.

For those willing to take the time to look closely at these objects the rewards are significant. A window is opened onto a world where noble bodies and porcelain bodies were often one and the same. Courtly dancers whirl gracefully, lovers caress gently and actors bask in an eternal moment centerstage, all of them captured by gifted artists who embraced the novelties and challenges of a magical new medium.