This spectacular group is very similar to figural elements modelled by Johann Joachim Kändler, with the assistance of Johann Friedrich Eberlein, for the famous ‘Swan Service’, the vast Meissen service commissioned by the Prime Minister of Saxony, Count von Brühl.1
The mid-18th century finely chased French ormolu mount on the present group was made specifically for it, indicating that it was in France at some point during the 1750s or 1760s when it was mounted, so it cannot once have been part of the Swan Service. As elements of the service were made as multiples, it is possible that an additional piece could have been made, either as a commission, or given as part of an important diplomatic gift. As a group of a similar description was recorded in the belongings of the soldier and diplomat Charles-Louis-Auguste Fouquet, duc de Belle-Isle, in 1761, it is possible that the present group could have been part of the porcelain given to him by Augustus III of Saxony in April 1741.2 Another possibility is that Belle-Isle ordered it from Meissen himself, as he did place orders for various items at Meissen following his visits there.
In Autumn 1740 the stability of Europe was thrown into disarray with the death of Holy Emperor Charles VI. France was desperate to influence the outcome of the succession, fearful that if Charles’s daughter Maria Theresa inherited as Empress, her husband would become the de facto Holy Roman Emperor. The comte de Belle-Isle3 was appointed Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary in December that year and he was tasked with promoting France’s candidate for election, Charles Albert of Bavaria. Belle-Isle arrived in Dresden in April 1741 in a bid to influence how Augustus III of Saxony would cast his vote.
The duc de Belle-Isle’s visit to Dresden was hugely important to Saxony and Europe. As Maureen Cassidy-Geiger noted, other than four audiences for Turkish diplomats, which are ‘remarkably well recorded owing to the special requirements, language barriers, and foreign customs of the visitors, who just years earlier had been feared enemies’, the only other audiences to have ‘received such exhaustive coverage’ were those of Belle-Isle in 1741 and 1742.4 A large presentation of porcelain was made to Belle-Isle on the fourth day of his first visit, which was delivered to his lodgings while he was out.5 Although a detailed comprehensive list of what was given does not appear to have survived, and Belle-Isle did not record a description of what he received in his dispatches, the event was recorded in the Dresden Court Calendar published a month later in May 1741. The Court Calendar did not give thorough descriptions of what was given, but it noted that the gift included a large Meissen dinner-service with ‘old Japan’ decoration, chimney-piece garnitures of vases, teawares and animals, birds and figures.6
There would have been very little time to prepare the gift for Belle-Isle’s impromptu four-day visit, so porcelain would have been taken from stock at the factory or even from the king’s collections in the Japanese Palace. The duc de Belle-Isle visited the manufactory at Meissen in May 1741 and again two months later in July. He was very taken with it and commissioned a candelabrum very similar to those of the Swan Service.7 The work book of the Modellmeister, Johann Joachim Kändler, records his work on this piece in October 1741 saying that he had completely changed the existing Swan Service candelabrum model to make a new form: “Einen großen Tafel Leuchter Vor Ihro Excellenz de Marschall de Bellisle gefertiget nach dem Dessein Wie solche Ihro Hoch Reichß Gräfl. des Herren geheimden Cabinets Ministers Von Brühls Excellenz erhalten. Es ist aber solcher Leuchter Völlig geändert damit eine Neue Forme darnach hat gemachet werden können, und bestehet aus nach stehenden Füguren, als 1. ein Mannes Bild sietzend mit einer Sirene, darneben 2. Triton Kindel, 1. Delphin und SchilffWerk, Woraus drey sehr zierliche Leuchter Arme fließen Worauf die Lichter gesetzt werden können” (A large table-candelabrum for His Excellency the duc de Belle Isle made after the design that His Highness Cabinet Minister Count Brühl received. But it is a candelabrum which has been completely changed to make a new form of it, and it consists of standing joined sections, as 1. a man seated with a siren, next to 2. triton children, 1. dolphin and reeds, from which three very delicate candlestick arms issue, on which the lights can be placed).8
The posthumous inventory9 of Belle-Isle’s chattels in Paris and his apartments at Versailles (started in February 1761 very shortly after his death) lists a number of items which correspond to what the Dresden Court Calendar mentioned in 1741. A large quantity of Meissen porcelain table decorations for a dessert-course are listed, and as Selma Schwarz noted, this included an aquatic-themed group of figures and groups which appear to be of Swan Service type. Part of this group were 2 groupes d’Enfants portants des Dauphins (two small figures of children riding on dolphins)10 as well as river gods, three dolphins and four tritons (probably two female and two male). Rather like the aquatic design of the Swan Service was a play on the word Brühl, meaning ‘watery’, Schwarz has suggested that the aquatic theme of this group of pieces may perhaps be a reference to Belle-Isle’s family property, Belle Île, an island off the coast of Brittany, and that he ‘may personally have chosen to add them to his service’.11
Belle-Isle ordered a number of items from Meissen which are recorded in Kändler’s work books,12 but there does not appear to be a record of the present group,13 and nor is there a record of it in the work books of his assistant Eberlein,14 but it should be noted that these work books are not always comprehensive. One explanation for this could be that pieces were created out of hours for additional pay (some of these out of hours pieces were recorded). The absence of a work book entry is not unique to this group; for example, the small figures of tritons from the Swan Service, one female and one male (blowing a conch shell, 15.4cm. and 15 cm. high respectively), which are attributable stylistically to Kändler, do not appear in his work book.15 As Belle-Isle ordered a candelabrum of similar type as the Swan Service candelabrum in October 1741 he had presumably seen the Swan Service in use / on display when dining with Count Brühl in Dresden and had been impressed by it, and it is reasonable to assume that he may have ordered similarly aquatic-themed centrepiece figures and groups from Meissen at this time, given that his posthumous inventory appears to record them. Kändler very possibly modelled the present group out of hours at this sort of time, or it is equally possible that the group was part of the porcelain given to Belle-Isle in April 1741, and that he ordered the candelabra in October and in November to go with porcelain which he had already received.
The size of the figures in the present group is comparable to the large models of male and female tritons holding shells above their heads.16 The largest showpieces would have been placed at the centre of the Swan Service table display, flanked by further outer centrepieces, but table-plans for the Swan Service have not survived, so we can only guess at what the original layout may have looked like. By about 1911 only a part of the centrepiece table decoration was still at Schloss Pförten (the Brühl family home which is on the route from Saxony to Poland), and this element is now missing,17 so it is difficult to draw specific parallels between the present group and the Swan Service centrepiece, as so many of these original elements are now missing.
If the present group was made for Belle Isle, the 1761 inventory of his chattels at Versailles does not mention an ormolu mount. It is possible that the group had been mounted by 1761 and that the mount was not mentioned in the inventory (mounts were not always noted in inventories), or it is equally possible that it was mounted shortly after his death. The exquisite quality of the naturalistically cast base relates to the oeuvre of the celebrated bronzier Philippe Caffieri, who might have modelled or chased the present lot.
1. The Swan Service was made for Heinrich Count von Brühl (1700-1763), Prime Minister of Saxony and Director of the Meissen factory from 1733-63. Most pieces of the service are painted with the marriage arms of Brühl and his wife, Maria Anna Franziska von Kolowrat-Krakowska (1712-1762), whom he married in April 1734. For an extensive discussion of this service, see Ulrich Pietsch et al., Schwanen service, Meissener Porzellan für Heinrich Graf von Brühl, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresdener Schloss May – August 2000 Exhibition Catalogue, Berlin, 2000.
2. We are grateful to Maureen Cassidy-Geiger for confirming this as a possibility.
3. Belle-Isle (1684-1761) was named Maréchal de France in 1741, duc de Belle-Isle in 1742 and a peer of France in 1748. Louis XV appointed him Secretary of State for War in 1758, a position which he held until his death.
4. Cassidy-Geiger, ‘Porcelain and Prestige’, in Fragile Diplomacy, Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture, New York, November 2007 – February 2008 Exhibition Catalogue, 2007, p. 11.
5. For a translation of the entry from the Calendar, see Cassidy-Geiger, ‘Princes and Porcelain on the Grand Tour of Italy’, in Fragile Diplomacy, 2007, p. 230.
6. Belle-Isle arrived in Dresden on 15th April and the gift was delivered on the final day of his visit, 19th April. Cf. Maureen Cassidy-Geiger, ‘Porcelain and Prestige’, in Fragile Diplomacy, 2007, p. 12 and Selma Schwartz and Jeffrey Munger, ‘Gifts of Meissen Porcelain to the French Court, 1728-50’, in Fragile Diplomacy, 2007, p. 145.
7. Cf. Selma Schwartz and Jeffrey Munger, ibid., p. 146 and p. 167, note 43.
8. Rainer Rückert, Meissener Porzellan, Munich, 1966, p. 122, no. 518 and pl. 130, figs. 518 (showing both sides). Rückert suggested that the Swan Service type candelabrum in the Residenz, Ansbach (Inv. Nr. P300), which has a gilded cartouche rather than a coat-of-arms, could be this candelabrum (although it is not significantly different from the Swan Service model).
9. AN, T/449/14, Centre Historique des Archives Nationales, Paris, cited by Schwarz, ibid., p. 166, note 27, and a list of items pp. 166-167, note 36.
10. Schwarz, ibid., 2007, p. 146, and p. 166, note 36, where the inventory is transcribed.
11. Schwarz, ibid., 2007, p. 146.
12. Kändler was creating an item for Belle-Isle in May 1741, a chocolate-beaker in June 1741, the large triple-light table candelabrum in October 1741 and a double-light candelabrum in November 1741. The 1761 inventory of Belle-Isle’s Paris residence records six pairs of twin and triple-light Meissen candelabra.
13. For the years 1737-1743 inclusive.
14. We are grateful to Sarah-Katharina Andres-Acevedo for providing this information.
15. Cf. Ulrich Pietsch et al., ibid., 2000, p. 180, numbers 61 and 62.
16. The female figure was modelled by Eberlein and the male figure by Kändler. Old photographs of these models are illustrated in Pietsch et al., ibid., 2000, p. 46, figs. 32 and 33, both of which have been missing since World War II. Two 20th century versions of these models are illustrated on p. 179, figs. 59 and 60 (and they are 36 cm. high and 44.5 cm. high respectively).
17. The Meissen scholar Berling drew this structure which had shells at the corners bearing large dolphins which are very similar to the present lot. This drawing is illustrated along with a photograph of a corner element in Pietsch et al., ibid., 2000, p. 45, figs. 30 and 31.