It’s been a fun week for us in the curatorial department at the Dixon. Since the Birmingham Museum of Art hosted the American Ceramic Circle’s annual conference, a couple of the country’s great porcelain aficionados came by the Dixon to take in and study our renowned Stout Collection of Eighteenth-Century German Porcelain. So I thought today would be a good day to discuss one of my favorite porcelain objects in the Dixon’s collection.
A lot of times I’m asked what my favorite work in the Dixon’s permanent collection is, and it’s a really tough question to answer. I have SO many favorites! But one of my very very top favorites is this work of Meissen porcelain, Harlequin and Columbine Dancing, created by the legendary porcelain manufactory around 1744. I have always loved images of the commedia dell’arte in fine art, and immediately fell in love with the Dixon’s many porcelain objects pertaining to the subject.
Meissen, Harlequin and Columbine Dancing, c. 1744, Hard paste porcelain
Collection of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Gift of Warda Stevens Stout, 85.22
The commedia dell’arte, or Italian Comedy as it is sometimes called, arose in the open-air markets of Padua in the 16th century as an improvisational theater group. Known for their rough and bawdy sense of humor, commedia troupes saw actors playing stock characters that would come up with short skits that dealt with love, lust, and local politics. By the 18th century, the popularity of the commedia idea had grown so much that there were over 60 commedia groups in over 4 countries, including France and Germany.
Commedia subjects were extremely popular with artists in the 18th century, including Jean-Antoine Watteau, as well as the modelers at the many porcelain manufactories throughout Europe, specifically Meissen. At Meissen, modeler Joachim Johann Kandler was particularly creative in shaping his individual figures and groups, using bright colors as well as humorous gestures to convey the personalities of each of the stock characters.
Created around 1744, Harlequin and Columbine Dancing features two of the most common and enduring characters in the commedia dell’arte. Harlequin (right) is one of the zanni, or servants, in the group. He is lusty, witty, greedy, and above all mischievous. In fact, the modern term “zany” comes from his role as a zanni and perfectly describes Harlequin’s character. Harlequin traditionally wore a diamond-patched costume, but porcelain modelers, like those at Meissen, often modified that to include playing cards on his clothes to allude to his role as a chancy or shifty character.
With Harlequin in this group is Columbine, a flirtatious, coquettish female servant who is in many ways Harlequin’s female counterpart. She is witty, lusty, and light on her feet, and she, like Harlequin, often becomes entrenched in zany plots aimed at bringing two lovers together or swindling some of the wealthier characters in the stories. Here, Columbine and Harlequin are shown dancing, an activity both characters were known for being skilled at.
With vibrant colors and playful expressions, porcelain figures like Harlequin and Columbine Dancing quickly became popular for porcelain aficionados in the eighteenth century. The Dixon is fortunate to have several commedia figures and groups in both the Stout and Hooker porcelain collections.
One of the Meissen experts that stopped by the Dixon this weekend, a wonderful man named Malcolm Gutter, was particularly fascinated by the Stout’s commedia subjects and remarked on how absolutely special they are. Come by and see Harlequin and Columbine Dancing for yourself on view in the Stout Gallery at the Dixon. I hope you love it as much as I do!