Originally published in Hungarian Ceramics from the Zsolnay Manufactory, edited by Éva Csenkey and Ágota Steinery. Published for The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002. 35–43.

From the exhibition: Hungarian Ceramics from the Zsolnay Manufactory, 1853-2001.

The interpretation of historicism has undergone a gradual change in recent decades. While so-called historicist works were once judged to embody a retrograde spirit of academicism and the unimaginative repetition of bygone stylistic periods, such historicism is now considered a direction that actually anticipated modernism in terms of both theory and practice, in many respects tending to look forward rather than to adhere strictly to tradition. This change in perspective was influenced by an unparalleled broadening of historical awareness—as evident in the separation of historic periods—and the discovery of the innate possibilities in historical investigations. European culture had always recognized and practiced a kind of historicism in the adaptation and embellishment of historical forms. In practical terms, historicism was based on the encyclopedic knowledge of craft. Innovation came through the methodical, often ideological, adaptation of artistic forms and the deliberate, if occasional, exploration of symbolic content.

Vilmos Zsolnay adhered to this ideal of technical and artistic perfection. As his daughter Teréz noted in her memoirs, Vilmos had wanted to be a painter in his youth.1 Beginning in 1865 he worked to improve his ornamental ceramics by testing a number of raw materials in and around Pécs, by introducing kaolin from Bohemia, and by refining these materials and even selling them.2 Through his business connections in England, France, Germany, and Austria, he was familiar with the trends of the period and able to introduce and market fashionable items that appeared as novelties to his small-town customers.

Zsolnay’s first major success came at the 1873 Vienna World Exhibition. Some of his ornamental dishes were decorated by transfer prints, others by Schmelzfarben (high-fired colors), designed and executed by a painter named Claven. Teréz Zsolnay described the exhibits:

On the gradually narrowing shelf at the exhibition were large terracotta garden vases decorated with colorful floral garlands, and among the various shapes and styles of ornamental objects, the prettiest were the Renaissance pitchers glazed brown or blue. One had a bulging body, tapering neck, and pronounced handle. Another had a body pressed flat and a pointed pouring lip, and was ornamented with relief decoration. We also exhibited pitchers with impressed pour-spouts, black- rimmed French jugs decorated with tiny bouquets of flowers, Hungarian pitchers decorated in cobalt, and fine terracotta pitchers with narrow necks and high handles, decorated with a pattern based on an antique, probably Roman, design. There were tobacco containers, match-holders, coffee boxes, mixing bowls, pots, pans, pharmaceutical jars, cups, large lidded chalices, firkins, and smooth white washbasin sets. Much interest was generated by the terracottas embellished with a color glaze, the medallions adorned with a woman’s head, the consoles, column capitals, and cornice moldings, and the Hungarian coat of arms in color.3

The description suggests that these were standard forms in accordance with the taste of the period, featuring a number of dishes for daily use, the models for which were still taken partly from the production of Ignác Zsolnay. The export orders arriving after the Vienna exhibition—from England, France, Russia, America, and Austria—significantly in creased the factory’s production. The exposition’s jury, in recognition of Zsolnay’s work, awarded Vilmos a bronze medal and the title of Knight of the Order of Franz Josef. The Vienna exhibition was also a turning point in Zsolnay production because Vilmos Zsolnay was introduced to Minton’s high-fire glazed “Persian-style” ornamental dishes and the Minton experiments in turquoise, yellow, and plum glazes which closely resembled Chinese cloisonné enamel.4 In all likelihood it was this experience that inspired Zsolnay to develop his own high-fire glazes.

Zsolnay ceramics of this time reflect a variety of artistic influences. The designs in the first Façon book in 1873 include a clay pitcher from the Drava River region; German salt-glazed stoneware Renaissance-style pitchers; flower and fruit holders imitating a wicker basket; dishes shaped like cabbage leaves, with sculpted lizards; a bear-shaped box for candy or tobacco; dishes decorated with fox or owl heads; and a dish shaped like a burdock leaf, the stern of the leaf bending back to form the handle. According to Teréz Zsolnay’s memoirs, the leaf motifs were designed by a factory painter named Schmutzer.5 Claven did the Japanese-style plant and animal motifs slip-painted on stoneware.

Inspired by the Vienna exhibition, Zsolnay attempted to make his first porcelain ornamental vessels, producing Japanese lmari-style vases. The cobalt stain was high fired and the coral red and the gold were fired in a muffle kiln, after which the gold was polished. Claven, who was probably familiar with the original Japanese decorations featuring the chrysanthemum, adapted the motifs to Zsolnay forms.6 As early as the mid-eighteenth century these distinctive motifs had appeared in European porcelain manufactories, including Meissen and Vienna. Around 1810 Minton manufactured bone china services with Imari-style decorations.

At the Zsolnay factory the Imari style was employed in white earthenware coffee sets. The products also include Chinese Imari dishes (JPM inv. nos. 51.1345–46). This type of porcelain was based on a Japanese example in the late seventeenth century and became especially popular in England in the early eighteenth century. They were characterized by traditional blue, red, and gold glaze, and in the second quarter of the century some examples also appeared with famille verte and famille rose patterns.

Another group of objects showing definite artistic aspirations is linked directly to Vilmos Zsolnay. In 1873 he began producing dishes with cobalt designs under the glaze, an outstanding example of which is the monogrammed coffee service made for Countess Degenfeld. Zsolnay himself drew the wildflower decorations on this service. The exquisite transparent chrome glaze coating on the rims, handles, and foot, lending them a brownish shade, heightens the individuality of each piece in the set. Also belonging to this series are the large vases decorated with “jungle” motifs, which display the influence of naturalism prevalent in the Japanese-inspired plant and animal motifs on English earthenware, particularly the large Doulton pitchers (JPM inv. nos. 51.845, 51.847).

Among the factory’s art ceramics, the “Pannonia” series of 1873 was also highly accomplished and enjoyed years of success. The forms were modeled after Bronze Age vessels with limestone insets that were found by Zsolnay’s friend Antal Horváth, a lawyer and amateur archaeologist, at his vineyard on Makår Hill near Pécs. Exact copies were made of the original pottery: dishes, small bowls, cups and mugs, plates made of reddish clay. White engobe (clay slip) was poured onto the etched line designs and then wiped from the surface of the dishes leaving clay inlay (JPM inv. nos. 52.143–44). Some vessels later featured color decorations and colored glazes developed from the originals (JPM inv. no. 52.47). These design sheets can be found in the archive, although the designer is unknown. A second “Pannonia” series was made in the 1880s, this time mostly of fine faience with high-fire glaze technique (JPM inv. no. 51.1031, form no. 591). Some of the new forms were imaginative variations of the originals.7

Zsolnay experimented with all types of ceramics. The family’s collection of samples consisted of around a thousand items, with objects from a wide variety of periods and regions. Zsolnay made exact copies of these in order to investigate a technique fully, but these copies were not intended to be mistaken for the originals. They were simply part of his empirical method of working.

Along with Zsolnay himself, other members of the family were also passionate collectors, who possessed a keen eye and refined taste. Directed by their father, Teréz and Júlia began collecting folk art around 1870, acquiring several thousand examples of textiles and pottery. These formed the core of the Janus Pannonius Museum (JPM) ethnography collection. Júlia Zsolnay also collected portraits of peasant girls and women. The sisters kept meticulous records, with Teréz Zsolnay recording the place of origin of each object, noting who sold it and where it was from. Some of the textiles are from Croatian villages along the Drava River, a larger portion are from Hungarian and Croatian villages from Baranya County, and a few are from the Bunyevác (a Catholic southern Slavic ethnic group) of Bácska County. The collection features woven and embroidered bedsheet borders, towels, embroidered shirtsleeves, and richly decorated kerchiefs.

The ceramics in the collection were mostly from the nearby pottery centers of Mohács, Siklós, and Máriagyud. Many examples came from the German villages of Hertelend and Hosszúhetény in Baranya County. The collection evokes a surprisingly professional and modern sensibility, given that folk art museology was still in its infancy at that time. Although the Zsolnay sisters were often uncertain of the origin of the motifs and forms and occasionally were unable to determine even the ethnic grouping, their sense of quality and antiquity enhance d the collection.

The Zsolnay factory frequently used as models forms derived from late Roman sources including the Mohács pitcher, the wide-mouthed “Turkish” pitcher, also of Mohács, and the Siklós pitcher. Popular among the historical types were the Transylvanian small jug (bokály) and the crown pitcher. The double-spouted askos of Greek origin, a survivor in peasant ceramic tradition from the time when the modern region of Transdanubia had been the Roman province of Pannonia, was also prevalent. With revised glaze techniques and decorations, these forms continued in production until the second decade of the twentieth century.

Beginning in the 1870s, Júlia and Teréz Zsolnay were increasingly involved in design, and the objects from their collection often provided inspiration for their work. Teréz Zsolnay concentrated on a purity of style. Her “Hungarian”–style motifs, for example, were inspired not only by works of pottery, but also by the so-called seignorial embroidery of noble households. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, characteristic Hungarian embroidery combined Turco-Persian motifs with those of the Italian Renaissance, this tradition being strongest in Transylvania. This “floral renaissance” continued to thrive in the applied arts as a symbol of Hungarian cultural independence during the era of Turkish rule (1526–1686). In the eighteenth century these decorative motifs migrated into peasant crafts, and in the nineteenth century they were still considered mementos of an independent Hungarian history. Thus it is probably no accident that when national consciousness began to develop with the rise of the middle class, Teréz Zsolnay turned to this folk heritage to represent it.

After Ernst Wahliss, who was then the sole international representative of the company, opened a shop in London in l883, pressure from the commercial side of the business increased. In a letter to her sister, then married and living in Budapest, Júlia Zsolnay complained of commercial expectations: “I am enthralled: Miklós says you are unmatched in this Hungarian manner and wants to send an entire series of dishes for you to decorate. I admire you for sticking to a serious style. I keep feeling I have to compromise. I waste so much time on naturalistic flowers and boughs! Wahliss was here: everything must be gaudy and gilded! He is more interested in business than in what is truly beautiful. Fortunately, the English want strict ornamentation, so I can design in the Persian style again!”8 Vilmos Zsolnay aimed for more than commercial success, however, and urged those around him to strive for artistic innovation. He wrote to Teréz about the need to create new styles: “I am very pleased with the drawings you sent, especially the pitcher and the flowerpot; you have expressed true joy with them. This is what I have been wanting for years. A spirited new Hungarian style has come to life in your work. Keep going in this direction: I expect a lot from it!”9

Contemporary experts thought highly of the Zsolnay collection. Vilmos Zsolnay maintained a friendship with Ferenc Pulszky, the director of the Hungarian National Museum, and József Hampel, the museum’s curator. According to Teréz, “For purposes of copying and study they have made available to him the most characteristic Hungarian pieces from the museum’s ceramics collection. There are also numerous splendid folk-style motifs in the pottery vessels that I have recently begun to collect. The old thatched-roof cottages of Pécs still have many beautiful antique dishes and pitchers decorating their walls, and I have also discovered excellent examples of old Pécs embroidery and weaving. In all, the folk art work has been a virtual treasure trove. I was so taken by the passion for collecting, so enthused by my pitchers and dishes, that I considered this style to be worth following.”10 Pulszky presented the two daughters’ folklore collection to the Academy of Sciences, and his son, Károly Pulszky, was the author of the first book of Hungarian folk art.11

Vilmos Zsolnay’s interest in peasant pottery may have been partly inspired by the great tradition and high standards of Pécs and Baranya pottery and by a desire for aesthetic revival, but there were also practical reasons. In the second half of the century the increased production of fine earthenware, porcelain, and enameled cast-iron kitchenware threatened the survival of potters in and around Pécs. Through the local and itinerant merchants, these items reached even the smallest distant villages.12 Bankrupt potters, first from Pécs, then Baranya, and finally from more distant regions, arrived at the Zsolnay factory looking for work, but most were unfamiliar with the methods of making fine ornamental ceramic ware. Zsolnay therefore styled the product ion to suit the skills of his workers and to meet the continued demand for peasant-style pottery. At the same time, he soon recognized the refined artistic quality concealed in these traditional forms and decorations, just as he had seen the harmonic beauty of archaic objects in Bronze Age vessels. As he continually improved and refined his techniques, he also created a unique aesthetic for his products, and his folk forms continued to be in demand long after the original coarse ceramic material had been improved through technology. In 1873 he presented Hungarian-style pitchers at the Vienna World Exhibition with much success and continued to manufacture them afterward. To maintain his domestic market, Zsolnay exhibited at every national fair. At the 1879 Székesfehérvár National Exhibition, he displayed perfected versions of familiar forms and decorations from the “home industry” crafts, raising these regional motifs to a national level. A letter from Zsolnay ordering vessels from Mihály Kovács, a potter in Debrecen, dating from after the exhibition, verifies that Zsolnay still saw business potential in the sale of pottery goods (JPM aux. inv. nos. 1594–95).13 The two pots supplied with handles and slip-trailed decoration, to which gold contours were later added, were in all likelihood part of this order (JPM inv. nos. 51.1837, 51.2282). Zsolnay himself made paintings and designs in the folk style. Teréz Zsolnay noted that he decorated a small pitcher with a Hungarian-style tulip, impressing “ZV 1874” on the back under the handle.

Among the new stylistic endeavors that followed the Vienna World Exhibition was vert antique (named for its characteristic green glaze), which was reminiscent of ancient, primarily Greek forms. As early as the late eighteenth century, the neoclassicist style inspired by Wedgwood products had been employing Greek forms and decorations with varying degrees of authenticity. In the 1870s the KPM factory in Berlin produced porcelain vases in black glaze that were essentially copies. Zsolnay’s amphoras, kraters, kylixes, kantharoses, cups, and nightlights (vigil lamps) rarely followed the historical originals faithfully. The models on which they were based may have been objects seen in museums or publications, but their value came from the marble-veined green glaze and the grace of their shaping. In the late 1890s a new fashion for classical-inspired dishes emerged using the eosin glaze technique.

In addition to the folk line, the other most productive style in the late 1870s was orientalism. In the middle of the century only a few dealers and collectors dealt with Near Eastern and Far Eastern art. The first pieces to be collected in Europe, mainly Turkish and Persian in origin, went to the collection s of the Musée de Cluny in Paris and the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert) in London. The impact of Persian and Moorish pottery first appeared on European ceramics in France in the 1840s, then in England after the 1851 Great Exhibition. At the 1862 London International Exhibition, Theodore Deck exhibited dishes decorated with a turquoise high-fired glaze and following traditional pottery forms.14 At the 1867 Paris Universal Exposition, English and French companies displayed tiles in the Iznik style. The misnamed “Persian” style was popularly known as “Rhodes” in the 1870s.

In 1877–78 after using Japanese and Chinese patterns mainly as technical models, Zsolnay formulated a characteristic orientalist style using the wealth of patterns and forms of the Near East found in pattern books, museum objects, and the factory’s own resources. The orientalist style of the late 1870s is inseparable from the new techniques developed by Zsolnay for high-fired “earthenware” with ivory-colored glaze and color enamels (the so-called porcelain faience). The technique was used on ornamental dishes beginning in 1877, Zsolnay’s was awarded a gold medal at the 1878 Paris Universal Exposition for this innovation.

This technology was among the most sophisticated of the international ceramic manufactories; and it demanded aesthetic innovations. Teréz and Júlia committed themselves to creating designs of high artistic merit. Antal Horváth, the lawyer and amateur archeologist of Pécs who had introduced them to Jakob Falke’s articles on aesthetics, offered them assistance. They also met with Falke while they were in Vienna. As Teréz recalled: “Falke often took us thro ugh the museum, pointing out the most interesting pieces. He also took us to the museum library, and instructed them to take special care of us and issue us the most valuable books in the field. We enthusiastically studied these masterpieces on oriental art, coming in daily and drawing and copying ornaments, tiles, and dishes, mainly from Persia and India. We corresponded frequently with Father, sending him drawings, while he sent us purchase orders for whatever he happened to need.”15

In addition to exhibitions and personal contacts, the Zsolnay sisters discovered another important source of information in the art periodicals that regularly published material from the collections of major foreign museums. The vase on design sheet no. 290 of the Zsolnay decoration book appeared in the 1869 issue of the French journal L’Art pour tous, several annual issues of which were in the family library. Popular among Iznik potters in the sixteenth century, this ring-necked form was Persian in origin and called surabi by the Turks. The vase was decorated with Iznik floral motifs but was distinguished from them by the application of “gold base” and “iron base” techniques used by Zsolnay from 1878 to the mid-1880s. Both techniques were Chinese in origin, though Zsolnay arrived at his special variations through experimentation. The gray matte surface of the “iron base” was counterbalanced by decorations painted in high-fire color glazes and surrounded by gold contours. In the “gold base,” or “gold brocade,” technique the uneven dull gloss gold surface brought out the magnificent bright colors of the high-fire glaze, combining with the gold relief for an effect similar to cloisonné enamel.

Many other ornamental ceramics were made between 1878 and 1882 in the Iznik style. A footed bowl (JPM inv. no. 51.1812.1) is an Iznik form known as Ajak Tasi, dating from around 1540. The outside of the bowl is covered in saz-style flowers and leaves, while on the inside, medallions are surrounded by flowering plum branches. Both the decoration and the color palette follow the original faithfully. The design sheet (no. 256) is in the Zsolnay archive, signed by Júlia Zsolnay and dated 1881. An illustration of the dish in the Musée de Cluny collection was published in Friedrich Jaennicke’s 1879 work on the history of ceramics, Grundriss der Keramik, an inscribed copy of which is in the Zsolnay family library, suggesting that the family knew the author personally.16

After the ring-necked vases and footed dishes, the third most popular forms were platters and bowls. These forms may have been the most successful items at the 1878 Paris Universal Exposition, as indicated by the large number of design sheets and the wealth of decorations prepared for them in that year. There are several variants of the “wind-blown garden” motif favored by the lznik “four-flower” style. Along with the variants, a nearly authentic copy of a sixteenth-century Iznik dish was also made (design sheet no. 36, JPM inv. no. 52.492). The originals of the Iznik-style dishes were probably museum objects. The popularity of the type is marked by the fact that from 1879 to 1881 issues of the periodical Kunst und Gewerbe often featured similar sixteenth-century pieces. Several European factories also manufactured the long, narrow, tapering tankard with its characteristic angular handle that was known as a masrapa in sixteenth-century Iznik. The decoration of one piece in the JPM Zsolnay collection (JPM inv. no. 51.1959) follows the original pattern, but another was also decorated with a Renaissance genre scene based on a design by Zsolnay artist Ármin Klein (JPM inv. no. 51.2257). The Façon number for the latter is given 409 as on design sheet 290 (but it does not appear in the Façon book).

Along with the characteristic ring-necked vase, the first Façon book also contains a Turkish-style pitcher with its handle formed from two clay rolls twisted together, of which a number of simple variants in majolica glaze are known (“Türkische vase,” Façon no. 753; “Orientalischer Krug,” Façon no. 803). A Turkish form manufactured with success for many years was patterned after a mosque lamp, with an openwork foot and edge (Façon no. 1172).

The Turkish occupation of Hungary, more than 150 years in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, coincided with the golden age of Turkish ceramic arts. The direct influence of their pottery in addition to design motifs deriving from Hungarian embroidery is found in the decorative motifs used by Zsolnay, and these reveal a kinship to the common motifs of eighteenth-century Hungarian folk art. Therefore, the contemporary buying public thought these Zsolnay “oriental” objects were of “Hungarian-character.”

To improve the technique and art of tile production Zsolnay sent his son Milkós to the Middle East to collect and study original samples. The trip from October 1887 to January 1888 was motivated by the growing demand for orientalist tiles and the search for new business opportunities. He followed the customary itinerary of the day: Constantinople, Brussa, Beirut, Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo, Larnaka, Athens. He returned with a valuable collection of tiles and ceramic shards and with many drawings of the tile motifs at the original sites, and these were used in Zsolnay designs.17

The orientalist influence had been revived with renewed strength in the works of Tádé Sikorski (the husband of Júlia Zsolnay) in the mid-1880s. Trained as an architect, Sikorski had an excellent sense of construction and form, and his approach was based on the prevailing historicism in Austro-German culture.18 However, Sikorski’s historicism was never doctrinaire; he never tried to make exact copies of the originals. The first series he designed for the Zsolnay factory derived from Ruthenian peasant pottery forms from the historical Upper Hungary; the designs reveal freedom and imagination in the handling of the relief decoration.

His “Alhambra” vase was designed in 1884, based on the Hispano-moresque models (Façon no. 1027, decoration no. 1224), and was one of the earliest types of orientalist ceramics in Europe. It had already appeared in the products of the short-lived Voisinlieu manufactory founded near Beauvais by C. L. Ziegler in 1838. Another early example was from the workshop of E. D. Honoré in France around 1844.19 The original for the version designed by Sikorski , however, may have been from the South Kensington Museum collection.20 Sikorski’s knowledge of Spanish Moorish ceramics was likely obtained from the Museum für Kunst und Industrie in Vienna (now the Österreichisches Museum für Angewandte Kunst) while he was living there, but he may also have seen examples in the collection of the Budapest Technical University, now in the Museum of Applied Arts.

The “Alhambra” vase is distinguished by its large size (although it was made in smaller versions as well) and its rich embossed decoration highlighted by high-fire glaze technique and the magnificence of the gold outlines. Thanks to its popularity it was reissued in 1897–98, this time with the eosin glaze technique alluding to the Moorish historical precedents. A vase designed in 1882 by Júlia Zsolnay (Façon no. 815) also had the name “Alhambra,” and two further “Alhambra”–type vase designs are in the Zsolnay archives. One, a vase appearing on design sheet 644 dated 1883, is squatter and fuller than the historical prototypes, and the shape of the richly pierced handles is articulated, almost lace-like, on the design plan. Another example, a vase on design sheet 653 dated 1884, has a shape similar to the Turkish ringed-neck form, the handle decorated with a reticulated edge. The notations concerning the glazes on the design sheets indicate that both pieces were in production. Prior to the appearance of Sikorski, Júlia Zsolnay’s designs had represented the greatest wealth of form.

Ornamental vessels in the Moorish style were manufactured even before Sikorski’s arrival. Dishes of varying forms were produced in 1877–78 with raised white arabesque decoration on a blue glaze ground. Both the design sheets and the manufactured versions are in the JPM collection, but the designer is unknown. In the 1880s the works of Arabic metalsmiths and glassmakers often served as prototypes. Mameluke metalworking was known for its ring-necked ewer21; bands that had originally held the various parts together could be seen on the handle and sometimes the spout. This type of ornamental vessel, made of copper inlaid with silver and gold, was the inspiration for the forms of two ewers numbers (Façon nos. 763 and 1892). One is embellished with “shrinking” glaze, high-fire painting, gilding, and openwork detail (JPM inv. no. 51.3002) and the other, a later version, was made with the eosin glaze technique in 1897–98 (JPM inv. no. 51.5440). Mameluke glassmakers developed a vase form that later was used for copper washbasins and was translated by Zsolnay into a ceramic form. This dish has a round shape and wide rim bending outward, but the form is not illustrated in the Façon book. The width of the rim is surprising. The ornamental medallion decoration is in the saz style (JPM inv. no. 51.2110).

Tádé Sikorski designed the “Arabic” or “Moorish” style of ornamental dishes. His sketches include a number of variations of ibriks (the Turkish name for a type of drinking mug), but he often relied on his imagination when drawing their form. Thus he could create an ornamental dish that gave the viewer the impression of Eastern craftsmanship, mainly of Arab origin, without having based it upon a specific model. Crescent-shaped handles and finials and reticulated surfaces with gold outlines were his speciality. A splendor of gold arabesques appearing sunken in a glasslike glaze lends unique color to these masterpieces.

A jewellike openwork decoration was characteristic of the late 1880s. The technique might have developed out of several sources. The network of vinelike surfaces favored by Islamic craftsmen and an “ivory porcelain” effect can be observed on these objects. “Ivory porcelain” became known internationally at the 1878 Paris Universal Exposition as a specialty of the Worcester Royal Porcelain Company, the name clearly alluding to the openwork ivory carvings of East Asia. Nineteenth-century English earthenware can also be seen as an inspiration for the technique. It is also possible that this technique was an attempt to imitate Chinese t’o t’ai eggshell porcelain, like the reticulated porcelain displayed by the Sevres manufactory at the 1851 London Great Exhibition.22

An exceptional example from the late 1880s of the combination of Eastern and Western influences is the double-walled technique known as honeycomb. An openwork layer resembling a honeycomb formed the outer wall of the vessel. The inner wall was decorated with tiny, meticulously drawn medallions, made visible by the piercing of the outer coating. The edges of the pierced holes were gilded. Persian miniatures and Chinese cloisonné medallions had inspired the popular ornamental elements of these pieces since the 1870s. Dishes made by the “honeycomb” technique were often used as tea or coffee services. There are also some versions (in the so-called Glass technique) where glaze fills the reticulations on the outer wall.

Another source of ceramic form and decoration in the 1880s was the Renaissance. The first dated Renaissance-style jug (Façon no. 768) is from 1880, although it is known that similar pieces had been produced earlier. The annotation “Júlie” next to the form presumably refers to Júlia Zsolnay. Later, she and her husband designed a number of Renaissance-style jugs, often versions with Eastern elements, she planning the decoration while Tádé Sikorski created the actual form.

Neo-Renaissance decoration had a decisive influence on European applied arts in the 1860s and 1870s. In German-speaking areas following an 1872 Munich World Exhibition, which was influenced by art history scholarship, it became virtually the national style. Vienna, as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, was at the forefront in disseminating the style. The sculptor Ármin Klein, having graduated from the Viennese Academy, came to the Zsolnay factory in 1876. Klein emphasized the classical elements of the Renaissance that had been adapted from antiquity. In an 1878–79 series on the popular figure of Cupid, he experimented with motifs drawn from antiquity—such as cherubs dancing before Priapos, or a youth playing the aulos—but he also designed simple genre scenes, with figures hunting, fishing, or playing music. Although his figures were often awkward, they still evoked a charm and harmony. Klein was skilled in decorative com position and stylized design. In 1879 he designed a series of twelve plates, each with a scene depicting an individual at work: young woman gardening, youth with falcon, halberdier, musician, night watchman. His airy compositions, with motifs drawn in pronounced outlines, approach the work of Minton’s Art Pottery Studio. His art avoided the academic pedantry of German historicism, as a flowing decorativeness was combined with a lyric tone in his designs, and in many ways the style and symbolism in Klein’s works anticipated Art Nouveau.

Also in 1878–79 Klein designed the “fidibus” series. These small cylindrical stemmed vessels were usually decorated with folk scenes. The stylized silhouettes of travelers or shepherds on a neutral background even today seem surprisingly modern. Although Klein did not use indigenous folk art sources, his genre scenes, which reveal an influence from French Romanticist painting, enjoyed great popularity. His favorite themes were the wine harvest and the wedding feast, for the depiction of which the two flat sides of a “pilgrim flask” offered a suitable surface. In his “Dish for Wedding Feast,” the peasant wedding procession resembles a scene from antiquity.

Klein used cobalt, sepia, or manganese pencil on a white ground on his dishes. After 1879 his portraits and scenes were increasingly executed on a gold ground. Beginning in the early 1880s he painted portraits on his dishes in the style of the German Renaissance, reminiscent of Dürer. A book by Jost Amman, Im Frauenzimmer (1586), illustrated with 122 woodcuts, gave a wide cross-section of women’s fashion of that era and was frequently used as a source by applied artists in the nineteenth century. Based on sixteenth-century Italian originals, the “Liebesschale” (or “love bowl”), which was fashionable in German-speaking areas, increased the demand for plates with portraits. The spacious surface of the plate provided ample opportunity for picturesque composition.23

In 1882 Klein produced a porcelain plaque depicting Venus and Cupid in the pâte-sur-pâte technique (JPM inv. nos. 51.2598–99). Marc-Louis Solon had perfected the technique in Sèvres in the mid-nineteenth century. But where Solon used elements from sixteenth-century Italian and French Mannerism, primarily the style of the Fontainebleau school, Klein produced light and decorative compositions loosely based on the originals.24

After the introduction of Japanese-style ornamental dishes at the 1873 Vienna World Exhibition, Japonisme was temporarily relegated to the background. In the early 1880s, however, changes in taste and fashion—aptly reflected in Viennese dealer Ernst Wahliss’s demand for naturalistic paintings of birds and flowers—brought to life a new wave of Japonisme. The increased potential for technical innovation aided in making it stronger and more diverse than before. Júlia Zsolnay was the primary proponent in the factory of this reinvigorated style.

In 1880 T. W. Cutler published in London A Grammar of Japanese Ornament and Design, a comprehensive work that did much to popularize Japanese motifs. The book features the popular bamboo pattern, which Zsolnay employed with success on coffee and tea services, and other tableware. The stylized formal language of Japanese heraldic symbols in Cutler’s book had earlier models in the work of French ceramicist E.A. Reiber, who drew rooster, mouse, and stork figures on his button designs of 1868.

Button designs with Japanese heraldic symbols were also made by Júlia Zsolnay (design sheet 617, 1884). She abstracted and reduced the motifs to a symbolic level, in surprising contrast to her other Japanese-inspired works from this time. These reflect the influence of Satsuma ceramics, with themes derived from nature, which were manufactured in the latter half of the century for the European market. Satsuma dishes had a yellowish glaze covered with tiny cracks and were painted with color glazes and richly gilded, offering a fine analogy to Zsolnay’s “porcelain faience.”

Júlia Zsolnay’s Japanese-inspired ceramics in the 1880s drew from European Japonisme as seen in finished objects, design sheets, and periodicals. Her large dishes depicting irises and orchids are similar to the iris plates made at Minton’s Art Pottery with an imitation lacquer technique.25

On several occasions illustrations from L’Art pour tous served as the basis for her designs. One design for a large vase (JPM aux. inv. no. 61.450.20) includes storks that strongly resembled the Hokusai storks published in the July 1881 issue of the periodical (p. 1062). Similarly, the 1881 issue featured rectangular porcelain vases decorated with relief or painted flowering branches. The original Japanese motifs were from bronze work. The Zsolnay version appeared in 1885 and consisted of an embossed, gilt flowering branch on a brownish tiger-glaze, with a little bird sitting on the branch as butterflies fly around it. The bird and butterfly were painted by high-fire glaze with fine gold outlines. The motifs are commercially stylized elements based on Gustave Fraipont’s L’Album japonais (Paris, 1880), but the technique makes them unique.

The decoration on design sheet no. 199 is an elaboration of the flowerpot design with scene of ducks and eagles published by Paul Bette Publishers in Berlin (JPM aux. inv. no. 61.447.49). This popular theme from Japanese painting was frequently used as decoration in the 1870s and 1880s. Júlia Zsolnay’s most original works are genre scenes painted on porcelain and depicting women and children walking or playing, such as a large plate with a scene of Japanese women fishing which was mentioned by Teréz Zsolnay in her memoirs.

Even as late as the 1920s Júlia Zsolnay continued to design commercial and artistic objects in the style of Japonisme. By then European taste had changed from the soft-colored Satsuma export ware to more traditional Japanese ceramic art. French ceramicists in particular recognized the significance of the tea ceremony and other customs in ceramic art. Toward the end of the century, descriptive decorative elements were replaced by a respect for the craftsman’s technical ability and for the purity of forms.

Domestic needs relating to ornamental ceramics were defined by the preparations for the 1896 Millennium Exhibition commemorating the Hungarian Conquest. Applied arts at that time were strongly influenced by a revival of historicism and the intention to represent national consciousness, and objects that met these criteria were prepared for the exhibition. The eosin glaze technique, which Zsolnay introduced around this time, with its metallic character and festiveness gave new color even to familiar forms and ornamentation. In its new adornments, even the traditional ceramic pitcher was far removed from its peasant ancestor (JPM inv. no. 52.606). At the same time, the need to suggest historical depth required the use of earlier models. The popular notion that Hungarians, being Asian in origin, were related to the Persians had revived interest in Persian art. In the late 1890s a number of ornamental dishes appeared featuring Persian ornamentation, primarily based on originals from textile art (decoration no. 2931, which has the annotation “Eosin decor”).

In addition to historicist and commercial objects, development in another direction also began to be more pronounced. Originally from the early 1880s and designed by Júlia Zsolnay, the popular “Lotus” series had created an extraordinarily rich world of forms in which lotus flowers, leaves, and stems were combined with the functional elements in dishes for everyday use. This series was revived in the early 1890s by Tádé Sikorski. His designs incorporated Japanese compositional elements of stylization and simplification of form. On the vase series dated 1895, relief floral vines decorate the bulbous forms. Of the styles originating from this year, every piece in the series (JPM inv. nos. 5107–42) was in the new style of Art Nouveau.

The ceramics created by Vilmos Zsolnay’s reflect the artistic and technical developments of his era. The inspiration for his artistic forms and decoration, and for the new materials and techniques he developed, came from historical prototypes or from the wares made in the finest Western European factories. Through his innovative spirit, however, he created an independent approach to ceramic form, decoration, and production. He combined the talents of artist, researcher, and businessman, typifying the nineteenth century.

© Bard Graduate Center, Orsolya Kovács.

1.Teréz Zsolnay and Margit Mattyasovszky Zsolnay, Zsolnay: A gyár es a család története, 1863–1948 (Zsolnay: History of the factory and the family, 1863–1948): 39: “I should also speak of Father’s talent as a painter. He never studied, but I imagine he watched the wandering painter living at his parent’s house while he was at work and picked up a few techniques from him. Also, a childhood friend of his was Xavér Ferenc Wéber, who later became a painter. On Sundays only, Father spent some time painting: his portraits, studies, landscapes, and still lifes all came from these hours, which were doubly holidays for him.”

2.Ibid.; Sikota Gyozo: A gyár története, 1948–1973 (History of the factory, 1948–1973) (Budapest, 1975): 48: “Since 1872 Father used the outstanding waxy fire-proof Zagor clay, mainly to make firing cases and fireproof bricks, but a certain amount was also mixed into the clay for pipes and dishes.… I find notes on kaolin, from Blansko and Pilsen. Also, consideration must be given of the Pécs clays, and the Váralja piedmont clay which Father brought in by the trainload. The Váralja clay was used for engobes and glazes, but he also sold large quantities of it to ceramicists in Croatia and Bácska County.”

3.Ibid.: 46.

4.P. Atterbury and M. Batkin, Dictionary of Minton (London, 1990): 159.

5.Zsolnay and Zsolnay, Zsolnay (1975): 48.

6.In the late seventeenth century, Japan produced large quantities of porcelain for Europe, and this porcelain was named for the port of departure, the town of Imari on the island of Kyushu. Its characteristic colors are cobalt, coral red, and gold, occasionally supplemented with green enamels.

7.Vince Wartha, Az agyagipar technológiája (Technology of the clay industry) (Budapest, 1892): vol. 2, illus.: “Régi edények a muegyetem keramikai gyujteményében” [Ancient vessels in the Polytechnic University’s ceramics collection]. It is conceivable that Wartha got these objects from Vilmos Zsolnay.

8.Zsolnay and Zolnay, Zsolnay (1975): 120.


10.Ibid.: 59.

11.Károly Pulszky, A magyar házi ipar díszítményei (Hungarian home industry decorations) (Budapest, 1878).

12.Lajos Ruzsás, A pécsi Zsolnay-gyár története (History of the Zsolnay factory in Pécs) (Budapest, 1954): 62.

13.“To: Mr Mihály Kovács, potter, Debrecen / Pécs, July 18 [1879] / At the Székesfehérvár exhibit I purchased painted and polished pitchers from you, I would order 100 of each type for the time being if you could offer them in the same quality but at a lower price? Attached find 3 drawings from which can be recognized 3 types of dishes, please send 10 of each by rail immediately. Awaiting your best offer, yrs sincerely / Wilh. Zsolnay”

14.Susan M. Wright, Decorative Arts in the Victorian Period (London, 1989): 25.

15.Zsolnay and Zsolnay, Zsolnay (1975): 67.

16.F. Jaennicke, Grundriss der Keramik (Stuttgart, 1879): 73, fig. 39: “Persische Fayencenschale. Musée de Cluny.” The dedicated copy is found in the Janus Pannonius Museum Division of Fine and Applied Arts.

17.Ibolya Gerelyes and Orsolya Kovács, Egy ismeretlen orientalista: Zsolnay Miklós keketi kerámiagyujteménye (An unknown Orientalist: The Oriental ceramics collection of Miklós Zsolnay) (Budapest and Pécs, 1999).

18.For Tádé Sikorski biographical data, see Appendix, in this volume.

19.Elisabeth Aslin, French Exhibition Pieces, 1844–1878 (London, 1973): fig. 5.

20.Jaennicke, Grundriss der Keramik (1879): fig. 127.

21.The name for the period of the Egyptian Mameluke (or Mamluk) sultanate (1250–1517).

22.Barbara Mundt, Historismus: Kunsthandwerk und Industrie im Zeitalter der Weltaustellungen, exh. cat. , Kunstgewerbemuseum (Berlin, 1973): fig. 73.

23.Ibid.: fig. 110.

24.Ibid.: fig. 122.

25.M. Bascou-Lacambre, Le Japonisme (Paris and Tokyo, 1988): fig. 174.