Love, Loss, and Splendor. The Political Intrigues of an 18th-Century Porcelain Set
In 1736, Heinrich Count von Brühl of the Dresden court in Saxony (now Germany) placed an order with the local Meissen porcelain manufactory for what was to become the most extravagant dinner service Europe had ever seen. The Swan Service, to which this plate originally belonged, comprised between 2,000 and 3,600 individual pieces and is widely viewed as a crowning achievement of eighteenth-century porcelain design.
The set was designed and executed by Johann Joachim Kaendler with his assistant, Johann Friedrich Eberlein over the course of five years, reaching completion in 1742. After numerous trials, in 1737 Kaendler and Count Brühl agreed on a plate with the motif of two swans swimming amidst reeds, along with the Count’s coat of arms, as the leitmotif of the service.
One cannot overestimate the diversity of pieces made for the service, a cornucopia of both imagery and functionality befitting the long unfolding theater of a baroque courtly meal. These included a centerpiece, a Plat de Ménage (no longer extant), numerous terrines, candle sticks, plates, bowls, a coffee set, sugar bowls and boxes in the shape of shells, even serving spoons, all executed in the highly fashionable “white gold” (as porcelain was called) to depict, as the commission stated, “all the flora and fauna of the water.” Thus the mythic creatures of the sea – Galatea and Acis, Venus, Tritons, nyriads, and putti – came together with swans, dolphins, herons, and depictions of natural specimens. In fact the set included all sorts of rare shells modeled from Kaendler’s first-hand observations of the cabinet of natural curiosities in Dresden, itself an instance of the Enlightenment interest in science and direct observation of the natural world.
What was the significance of the swan?
We do not know why count Brühl chose for the set to revolve around the motif of the swan. Numerous trials without this motif were made before he and Kaendler settled on a plate with two swans swimming as the prototype for the set, which likely stems from a travel book published in 1700.
In the seventeenth century the swan was coming to be tied broadly to nature, playing out, as Lothar and Sigrid Dittrich have noted, the “conflicts of antagonistic forces, representing evil’s threat towards the good.” The raw power of nature was understood as a threat to the human soul. Yet this component of conflict would soon subside, and beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, nature would become an ideal in the contemporary imagination, a place of purity and innocence. The Swan Service comes at just this transitional moment; the meaning of the central motif is thus somewhat ambivalent, representing both aggression and nature’s power, as well as a fanciful ideal. Not to mention, of course, the swan’s longstanding association with love.
Porcelain - Diplomacy by Other Means
Count Brühl began his career at court as a humble page, quickly rising through the ranks to the post of Prime Minister. Brühl's most relevant skill in the pursuit of his political goals may well have been his ability to entertain, a skill increasingly in demand as Dresden burnished its reputation as the festive capital of Europe. Official festivities promoted the ruler’s image and helped encourage tourism. What better accoutrement to an aspiring minister's table than porcelain? Europeans had only recently figured out how to make real porcelain, and its novelty and rarity made it one of the hottest commodities available. During this period, when the gesture of reciprocity inherent in gift giving was a crucial aspect of European politics, porcelain became the diplomatic gift par excellence. While it would be tempting to view Brühl’s commission as mere lavish whimsy, the status afforded him by the set would have served to buttress his own political reputation under the new King of Poland and Elector of Saxony. Who knew that setting the standard in coordinated dinnerware could be such keen political maneuvering?
Brühl’s penchant for pageantry would soon get the better of him; his conspicuous banquets earned him a reputation of excess (one critic called him "the man with a thousand hats but not one good head"). Saxony’s staggering debts after the Seven Years War, for which the Count was held largely responsible, only exacerbated his problems. With Saxony occupied by Prussian troops, Brühl fled to Poland while his residence was plundered. Returning to Dresden after the war, dejected, bankrupt, and out-of-favor, Brühl voluntarily resigned in 1763; he died later that year. Much of the service remained with Brühl's heirs in his palace through World War II, when much of it was destroyed by fire bombing. The authors Georg and Iris Kretschmann visited the former Brühl castle in Pförten, today Brody, Poland, in 1998 and were able to find shards of the porcelain service on the ground. Today, what remains of the service is scattered around the world, mainly in museum collections. Entertaining has rarely been as splendid, or storied.
Kretschmann, Georg and Iris. “Das Schicksal des Brühlschen Schwanenservice – Schicksal und Legende.” Urlich Pietsch (Ed.), Schwanenservice. Meissner Porzellan für Heinrich Graf von Brühl. Leipzig: Staatlich Kunstsammlungen Dresden, 2002: 87-105.
Reinheckel, Günter. Prachtvolle Service aus Meissner Porzellan. Edition Leipzig: 1989.
Rückert, Rainer. Meissener Porzellan 1710-1810, Exh. cat., Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich. Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 1966.
Schwartz, Selma and Jeffrey Munger. “Gifts of Meissen Porcelain to the French Court, 1728-50.” Maureen Cassidy-Geiger (Ed.). Fragile Diplomacy. Meissen Porcelain for European Courts ca. 1710-63. New York: Yale University Press: 2007.