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Meissen Plaque of 'The Botany Lesson’

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This item is no longer available
Dates Circa 1770 - 1773
13.25cm high (5.22 inches high)
11.25cm wide (4.43 inches wide)
Medium Porcelain
Origin Germany
Description An extremely rare small Meissen plaque of ‘The Botany Lesson’, painted by Johann Georg Schenau. Exquisitely painted with two ladies studying botany. The elder, wears a slightly old-fashioned Brunswick jacket popular in the 1760’s. Hanging from her waist is a fob watch showing 12.30. She holds the root of a plant and points to a shrub, possibly senna planted in a metal jardinière. The younger, a more fashionably dressed young lady has a high hairstyle, the height of fashion in the early 1770’s. Holding a book, she is deep in thought. To the side there is a neo-classical table on which stand a silver ewer and basin, and a glass. Behind is a large ceramic stove. On the ledge is a bag, a roll of ribbon and a pincushion

Circa 1770-3. Mark: incised 23, unglazed back, the remnants of a script G.
Dimensions: 5¼ ins. 13 ¼ cms. x 4½ins. 11¼ cms.

Johann Georg Zeissig born in 1737 in Große Schönau in Saxony (he changed his name to Schenau around 1756-1770 to acknowledge his home town) was the son of a damask weaver. As a child, the young Johann was fascinated with the patterns of the damasks and the sensual feel of the satins and was often found drawing them. He rebelled against joining his father as a weaver and in 1749, aged 12 he studied to become an artist, moving to Dresden, under the tutelage of J. C. Beßler at the Dresden Akademie. In 1756, under the protection of Louis de Silvestre, son of Israël Silvestre, the director of the Dresden Akademie, he was taken to Paris to study art at the Academie Royale. In Paris he met Johann Georg Wille, Engraver to the King.1

Wille, his compatriot and mentor introduced him to many new people, most importantly to Hagedorn, (general director of the newly established (1764) Dresden Akademie) and the French genre artists Chardin and Greuze who were greatly to influence Schenau’s work. Intriguingly, Schenau was recommend by General de Fontenay, (Saxon envoy at the Paris Court), to familiarise himself with painting on porcelain at the manufacture at Sèvres.2 On 5th January 1773 Sèvres acquired, for 580 livres, from M. Blancard, four small oil paintings by Schenau, allegorical of the four seasons. 3

By 1765, Schenau had built a reputation as a popular genre painter; many of his paintings were being engraved and issued to print dealers. Such is the subject of this plaque entitled The Botany Lesson, which was engraved by J.Chevillet, (see over).5 In 1768 with the assistance of Hagedorn, he was appointed a member of the Dresdner Kunst Akademie. Due to ill health, he delayed his return to Dresden arriving in 1770.

The Meissen factory was now under the directorship of Count Camillo Marcolini. The second Silesian War (1744-45) followed by the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) had greatly affected the supremacy of the factory. The great years of Kändler’s figure modelling and Höroldt’s dominance were over. Meissen workers were sent out to study other German factories to absorb new ideas and travelled to France and Sèvres.6 The French style was now the fashion. In 1764 Kändler stepped aside for a new master modeller, a Frenchman, the sculptor Jean Michel Acier, who had been persuaded to go to Meissen, with Wille as the intermediary.7 In 1773, also fresh from Paris and familiar with the French style, Schenau was appointed professor of design at Meissen. He refurbished the training school where both painters and modellers adapted his drawings, paintings and designs. The modellers Acier and Schönheit created some charming figures and groups 8and Jüchter modelled the elegant biscuit group of the Three Graces after Schenau’s drawing.9 A delightful example of a painting adaptation, is a teapot painted by Loehnig, where the charming chubby-faced child seated amongst her letter tiles, holds up an L - for Loehnig?10 This was taken from Schenau’s watercolour of a family group where the child holds up the letter A. 11

In 1782 Schenau supplied sketches for the plaques for the important Chimneypiece in the Chimney Room in the Green Vaults.12 They were partly biscuit, partly glazed relief plaques modelled by Matthäi. 13 It has been recorded that Schenau also designed plaques for the setting into furniture. 14 Sèvres, at this time was employing their finest artists to paint plaques to be mounted into luxurious furniture.15 With its chamfered sides and absence of mark, this small Meissen plaque seems to indicate that it was designed for mounting.

Happy with many different media we know that Schenau painted in oils, watercolours, pen and ink and pencil and on copper. From an entry in Wille’s journal, for September 16th 1768, “M. Schonau revealed to me a painting on copper, very pretty…”16 From correspondence with Schenau on 10th March 1770, soon after his return to Dresden he records: “ he carried around with him as many as fourteen ‘measures’ of precious little pictures’ that he had done in Saxony (Faire en Saxe) that he might send here for diverse ‘amateurs et graveurs’. 17

Schenau’s style was often a mixture of French and Dutch Genre paintings; the scene here, viewed through an arch is typically Dutch being first popularised by the Dutch artist Gerard Dou and known as nistuck (niche picture).18 The four paintings entitled Les Saisons, which were bought by Sevres in 1773, are also in this style. 19 L’Automne, shows similarities in the pose and treatment of the girl in a fine white satin dress (see illustration over).

In the eighteenth century, allegorical symbols would have been instantly identifiable. However, we have become less familiar with these ‘picture codes’ and it can be difficult to interpret their full meaning. The allegory here can possibly be interpreted in a number of ways: The senna plant,20 which is at the centre of their attention, was used as an infusion and taken for regularity, therefore constancy; the watch refers to time so this also alludes to regularity, even fidelity or diligence, as too is a lesson.

His attention to detail and observation of the domestic interior was another of his qualities.21 Wille bought many of Schenau’s paintings, which he then had engraved, and described them in his journals. On 10th March 1770, he ordered a series of seven little pictures, two of which were La Petite Écolière and La Maitress d’ecole. 22 These are typical of the themes and titles for his paintings; Bènèzit lists sixty different works, which have been sold at public auction between 1862, and 1994.23 Schenau’s works are found in numerous galleries including The Fine Arts Museum San Francisco,24 The National Gallery of Washington, 25 The British Museum, London, The Uffizi Gallery, Florence, and in Dresden.

The exceptional quality of this fine small plaque reflects the talents of an artist who was without doubt, capable of creating something very special with his understanding of fabrics and other textures.

Literature 1.Wille, Johann Georg, 1715 –1808, Vols. I & II, Mémoires et journal de J.G. Wille: graveur du roi, Pub. d’après les manuscrits autographes de les manuscrits autographes de la Bibliotèque impériale. Published: Ve.J. Renouard, Paris 1857.
2.Thieme, F, Becker, Allgemeines Lexikon… 1907 - p.24.
3.MNS Sèvres Archives, Inv. Fp. L 1814 No.13-16.
4. Meyer, Franz, Johann Eleazar Schenau, Handzeichnungen, Aquarelle, Radierungen und Kupferstiche, Katalog XLVII, p.5,, one of two plates; being the second, - The Botanical Lesson, described as “A young teacher, teaching a young lady in plant botany”.
5. Chevillet was a pupil of Wille and married his sister-in-law, see Benezit, Dictionaire Critique… The New Edition, 1999, p.577, & Wille, op. cit.
6. Clarke T.H. Johann Joachim Friedrich Elsasser’s Engravings of the <> and the Marcolini periods, 1785-1792. 1988, p.4.
7. Wille, op. cit., Vol.1. pp. 262, 264 & 531.
8. Honey, William B, Dresden China, New York, 1946, p.140.
9. Clarke, op. cit., pl.7, & pl.8, for the drawing and group.
10.Mentzhausen, Porzellam Sammlung im Zwinger, 1988, p.135.
11. British Museum Print Room, Acc. No. 1905-4-14-40, for a Schenau watercolour of Lady with children.
12. Clarke T.H., op. cit., pl 5, for an illustration of this mantelpiece.
13. Honey, op. cit., p.142.
14.Thieme-Becker, op. cit., p.24.
15.Savill, R, The Wallace Collection, Catalogue of Sèvres Porcelain,1988, Vol.11.C501 (a-b) for two Sèvres plaques possibly painted by Dodin, circa 1769 after engravings by Boucher set in a secrétaire.
16. Wille, op. cit., p.382.
17. Ibid., p. 431.
18. Sutton, P, C, Masters of Seventeenth-century Dutch Genre Painting, 1984, p.XLI
19.MNS Sèvres Archives, Inv.Fp1814, No.13, this painting, symbolic of autumn, shows great similarities with of the exquisite handling of the silk white dress.
20. Senna Pendula. (Lamk) var. glabrata (Vogel) Irwin & Barnaneby) Syn: Cassia indecora var. glabrata Vogel. We are grateful to Bidi Evans for this information.
21.Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, A Domestic Scene. Inv. No.1971.115.6.
22.Wille, op. cit., p. 428.
23.Benezit, op.cit., p.400.
24.The Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco, Achetez mes Petites Eaux-Fortes, 1765, Inv. No. 1963.30.33935.
25. National Gallery of Washington, The Happy family with Children playing, Inv. No. 1995.41.1.