December 10, 2019
This article is reprinted from the Fall 2019 issue of the Members’ Magazine.
Henry H. Arnhold was an astute businessman, an avid collector, and a great patron of the arts. Together with his parents, Lisa and Heinrich, he amassed one of the world’s finest private collections of Meissen porcelain, the first hard-paste porcelain produced in the West, so prized by European royalty during the eighteenth century that it was known as “white gold.” Mr. Arnhold’s generous bequest to The Frick Collection of more than one hundred pieces of Meissen and several Asian examples complements and expands the institution’s already rich ceramic holdings. For the next several months, many of the objects included in his bequest are presented in the Portico Gallery, in an installation that evokes the way porcelain was displayed in the grand palaces and aristocratic homes of Europe more than three hundred years ago.
I met Henry Arnhold in 2008, when his collection was first exhibited at the Frick. Then an Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow, I recall being nervous and feeling as if I were meeting a king, and, in many ways, he was like a king: he shared the stateliness of the very patrons whose artistic commissions he collected. That first exhibition marked the beginning of a long and productive collaboration between Henry and The Frick Collection, culminating in his bequest and the construction of the museum’s Portico Gallery, in 2011, to house it. Over the years, I came to cherish my relationship with Henry. I enjoyed his company at social events at the Frick, and we’d meet at his office or for lunch at his apartment on the Upper East Side, where we’d talk passionately about art, his collecting, and our shared love of porcelain. I also had the great privilege of curating two exhibitions featuring pieces from his collection: the Portico Gallery’s inaugural exhibition, White Gold: Highlights from the Arnhold Collection of Meissen Porcelain (2011), and Porcelain, No Simple Matter: Arlene Shechet and the Arnhold Collection (2016), which juxtaposed historic pieces from Henry’s collection with the work of New York–based sculptor Arlene Shechet. This third exhibition celebrates Henry’s knowledge as a collector, his keen eye, and his legacy.
It all began in Dresden, Germany, where Henry was born in 1921. His parents started acquiring Meissen porcelain sometime around 1926, focusing primarily on tableware and vases made between 1710 and 1745, when the Royal Meissen Manufactory led the ceramic industry in Europe, both scientifically and artistically. After her husband’s death, in 1935, Lisa Arnhold moved her family and her collection of porcelain to the United States, first to California and then to New York. Highlights from the Arnhold collection were exhibited at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco in the 1940s and again in 1965. After Lisa’s death, in 1972, Henry inherited the collection. Over the next forty years, he extended its size and scope, sometimes following his parents’ tastes and preferences, other times departing from tradition by acquiring Meissen with underglaze blue decoration, figures and groups, and mounted objects. Notably, he acquired numerous pieces that previously had been owned by one of the greatest porcelain collectors of all time, Augustus the Strong (1670–1733), King of Poland and Elector of Saxony.
The story of Augustus the Strong is one of secrecy, paranoia, and obsession. A precarious financial situation led the king to imprison an eighteen-year-old German alchemist named Johann Friedrich Böttger in the hope that he would find a way to transform base metal into gold. Although Böttger failed in this task, he managed—after eight years of laborious experimentation—to discover the arcanum, the secret formula and firing process of hard-paste porcelain. This formula was closely guarded by Augustus, who, in 1710, founded the Royal Porcelain Manufactory in Dresden, the first company in Europe to make porcelain equal in quality to that produced in Asia. Determined to keep the arcanum a secret, he relocated the manufactory to a secure clifftop castle in Meissen, a few miles outside of Dresden. As a celebration of the manufactory’s accomplishments, Augustus likely commissioned the medallion that bears his image.
By the early 1720s, Augustus—now afflicted by a legendary maladie de porcelaine (porcelain fever)—had amassed more than twenty thousand pieces of Chinese and Japanese porcelain, which he showcased in a small pleasure palace on the banks of the Elbe River. Between 1725 and 1733, this “Japanese Palace” was expanded to include four wings topped with pagoda roofs, large enough to house the Saxon king’s vast collection of Asian porcelain, which he proudly displayed alongside work from the Meissen manufactory.
One of the most important pieces from the Arnhold collection is the majestic Great Bustard, which was made at the Meissen manufactory in 1732 for Augustus the Strong. According to a 1736 inventory in the manufactory’s archives, this elegant bird was one of 478 porcelain animals commissioned for the king’s Japanese Palace. The figures were intended to adorn a long gallery, which every visitor had to pass through before being received by the king. This porcelain menagerie was conceived to complement the menageries of live animals and taxidermied specimens that Augustus kept in two nearby palaces. During the Baroque period, animals were often used as allegories of human traits and values. At Dresden, the king’s live animals were intended to represent his power, while the taxidermied animals demonstrated his scientific knowledge and the porcelain figures evoked his culture and taste.
The production of the porcelain animals—many of them life-sized—proved a technical challenge for the manufactory, as no figures of this scale and ambition had ever been made. The manufactory had to develop a special paste that was strong enough to support its own weight and would not crack during firing. After much experimentation, a suitable formula was developed, although most of the figures still bear firing cracks. Today, the Great Bustard and most of the surviving figures retain the stark white surface of the fired ceramic, but this was not always the case. Augustus dictated that the porcelain figures be painted in natural colors to imitate the fur and feathers of the animals they represented. Over the centuries, however, the oil paint used to decorate the porcelain flaked away and therefore was often removed.
Another iconic piece from the Arnhold collection is the pair of blue-and-white “birdcage” vases. These vases were commissioned by Augustus in 1730 as part of a larger order of one hundred similar vases, intended for display in his Japanese Palace alongside twenty Japanese export vases that inspired the Meissen replicas. It is not known how many of the one hundred commissioned vases were made; archival documents reveal that twenty were ready for firing in 1731, but only a few are known, including this pair and another at the Porzellansammlung, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, in Dresden. In the eighteenth century, small, colorful porcelain birds were placed inside both the Japanese and Meissen “birdcages.”
The exhibition includes several Asian pieces that directly inspired works created by Meissen, including a Japanese fluted dish with birds and a dragon. Archival documents indicate that the dish was sent to the manufactory from the Japanese Palace around 1730; this enables us to date a Meissen copy to the same period. Although the Meissen artists closely followed the Asian prototype, the size of the replica was reduced and the design of the painted birds was altered slightly. The beauty and delicacy of the Meissen replica exemplifies the refinement achieved at the royal manufactory a mere twenty years after its establishment.
Organized by color, the exhibition celebrates Henry Arnhold not only by drawing a parallel between him and the Elector of Saxony, but also by emulating the theatrical and historical display of porcelain. In European courts during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a fascination with Asian porcelain led to the creation of elaborate “porcelain rooms,” including the Japanese Palace of Augustus the Strong. Vases, plates, teapots, and cups from various parts of the world were displayed together, often arranged by color, in extravagant architectural spaces intended to astonish and amaze. We hope visitors to The Frick Collection experience much the same delight when viewing Henry Arnhold’s extraordinary bequest.
Installation view of Henry Arnhold’s Meissen Palace: Celebrating a Collector (November 7, 2019, to March 11, 2020). Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.
Installation view of Great Bustard, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, 1732. Model by Johann Gottlieb Kirchner (1706–1768). Hard-paste porcelain, h. 33 in. (83.8 cm). The Frick Collection, New York; gift of Henry H. Arnhold, 2013. Photo: Michael Bodycomb
One of a Pair of “Birdcage” Vases, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, after 1730. Hard-paste porcelain, h. 20 1/4 in. (51.4 cm), h. 20 1/2 in. (52.3 cm). The Frick Collection, New York; gift of Henry H. Arnhold, 2015. Photo: Michael Bodycomb