According to tradition, the West discovered the existence of Chinese porcelain in the late 13th century through Marco Polo’s descriptions of his travels. Pretty much everywhere, alchemists and other adventurous spirits sought to solve the mystery of the “white gold” with the support of princes and sovereigns actively competing in this frantic quest.
These efforts paid off, at the end of the 16th century in Florence and then in the late 17th century in France, with the invention of a substitute product, soft-paste porcelain, closer to glass and less resistant than true porcelain.
The first “real” European porcelain was invented at the Meissen manufactory in Saxony, at the initiative of Augustus II Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, who was himself a great collector of eastern porcelain. The Meissen porcelain technique was kept as closely guarded as a state secret, but in vain: the precious formulas crossed the border and, in 1719, a new factory was set up in Vienna. The mysterious process then travelled to Italy, before gradually spreading throughout Europe.Meissen did however play a pioneering role, both in the field of tableware – it was there that the first porcelain services were created – and in that of three-dimensional sculpture.
In the second half of the 18th century, the company lost its leading position to the Manufacture royale de Sèvres. From then on, French taste predominated in European porcelain.At the start of the 19th century, when it could be produced without any great difficulty, porcelain lost its mystery. Its whiteness no longer held any magic and it gradually disappeared under an abundance of gilding and increasingly academic decoration. It was the richness and virtuosity of its ornamentation that then gave porcelain its value.
Chamber pot. Meissen manufactory, 1735-40
Porcelain, polychrome enamels, gold.
Diam. 22 cm
Photo : Jacques Pugin