Fragile Diplomacy: Meissen Porcelain for European Courts was a unique exhibition of rare 18th-century Meissen gifts, many of which are on view in the United States for the first time. The exhibition, curated by Maureen Cassidy-Geiger, curator of The Arnhold Collection, Dresden/New York, had on display nearly 300 objects loaned by leading institutions and private collections in this country and abroad, including the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; royal collections of Denmark and Sweden; Albani Diocesan Museum, Urbino, Italy; and several major collections in Germany including the state art collections of Saxony, Hesse-Kassel, Berlin-Brandenburg, and Bavaria. Many North American collections were also represented, including the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, Toronto; Metropolitan Museum of Art and New York Public Library, New York; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford; and Stout Collection in the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis.

Porcelain was first produced in Asia in the eighth century. By the 16th century, a small number of Chinese pieces had entered royal collections in Europe, and gifts of porcelain began to be exchanged between royal houses. In 1590, for instance, Grand Duke Ferdinand de’ Medici (1549–1609) sent 16 pieces of Chinese porcelain to Elector Christian I of Saxony (1560–1591). In Europe, the recipe for manufacturing hard-paste porcelain was first discovered in 1710 at the court of August II (1670–1733), elector of Saxony and king of Poland. The prestige associated with being the owner of the first porcelain manufactory in Europe distinguished the king and his court and Meissen porcelain quickly achieved the status of “white gold” in Europe.

Experimentation over several years led to the production of a repertoire of models that embodied the artistic and representational traditions of the court. Initial inspiration was provided by the thousands of Chinese and Japanese porcelains that the king had collected. Genuine Asian porcelains were copied faithfully in the factory’s so-called “red porcelain,” a high-fired red stoneware, as well as in the white porcelain introduced in 1713. Meissen porcelain also was used for small sculptures that imitated carved ivories in the Electoral Kunstkammer (princely collection of rarities and curiosities), and for vessels and vases modeled after examples in silver from the silver buffet or after the locally turned mounted hardstone objects so valued by the king. Meissen porcelain is as much of a collector’s item in the 21st century as it was when it was introduced more than three centuries ago—many of the most exemplary early pieces immediately became part of the historical royal collections in Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and Russia, where they remain today.

Meissen porcelain began to function as a diplomatic gift by the mid 1720s, when a number of porcelain pieces from the king’s own collection were sent to the king of Sardinia in 1725. Three large white vases from that gift as well as two lavishly decorated tea and coffee services were in this exhibition. Conceived as showpieces rather than functional objects intended for daily use, such services were sent in customized leather boxes with velvet interiors trimmed in silver or gold braid. One of these rare boxes has survived and was included in the exhibition. Very quickly a standardized repertoire of gifts was developed, including table services, garnitures of vases, altar garnitures, toilette services, and the ever-popular tea, coffee, and chocolate services. Most often, painted coats of arms were used as decoration, as on the vases and the parts of the table service sent to the king and queen of Sweden in 1734. The extraordinary dessert service now in the Hermitage collection, sent to Empress Elizabeth of Russia in 1745, is the only Meissen dessert service to survive with its accompanying figures. It was exhibited here for the first time in America, in a historical display with table decorations by the food historian Ivan Day. The Meissen toilette service sent in 1747 to Maria Amalia, the queen of Naples, was painted with her coat of arms and with Watteau subjects in the green monochrome palette reserved for members of the Saxon royal family. It was partially reassembled for this exhibition. Reciprocal gifts were customary, and the show featured the amber chess set presented to August II by the king of Prussia in 1728 and one of the four saddles with parade horses sent to Dresden by Louis XIV in 1715.

The many volumes of diplomatic correspondence that have survived and are held in the state archives of Saxony demonstrate that every gift marked a specific diplomatic intent, though the gift enclosures signed by the king spoke nothing of politics. Four of these documents, penned by the king’s ministers and initialed by him, were on view in this exhibition.

The status of Meissen as a diplomatic gift reached its zenith in 1750, when an enormous mirror frame, pier table, and matching gueridons were sent to the king’s daughter, Marie-Josephe, the dauphine of France, to celebrate the birth of her first child. Indeed, Meissen snuffboxes began to replace the ubiquitous gold snuffboxes usually presented to ministers and high-ranking officials. With the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War in 1756, the Meissen manufactory slowly ceded its dominant role to its French competitor, the royal manufactory at Sèvres. During the war, however, when the Meissen manufactory was occupied for a time by Frederick the Great, he continued the diplomatic gift tradition by presenting his ministers and his mother with gifts of Meissen porcelain, many of which were featured in this show.

A richly illustrated catalogue, Fragile Diplomacy, Meissen Porcelain for European Courts, published by the BGC and Yale University Press, accompanied the exhibition. One of only a handful of publications devoted to the subject, this is the first survey of its kind to consider the diplomatic gift tradition at the court of Saxony under the two kings of Poland, August II and August III. Thirteen scholarly essays, written by a team of international experts, bring to light new archival discoveries concerning politics, diplomacy, and porcelain production at Meissen. Maureen Cassidy-Geiger introduces the subject while the historian Eugene Kisluk illuminates the politics behind the porcelain diplomatic gifts. A discussion of the diplomatic gift tradition in Dresden in the 16th and 17th centuries precedes individual essays on the porcelain gifts to Austria, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, and Sweden.

Organized by Bard Graduate Center and curated by Maureen Cassidy-Geiger, curator of The Arnhold Collection, Dresden/New York.