HARTFORD — Vice President Biden, listen up! This might be the way to cure cancer: Find the best scientist you can. Lock him or her in a room. Don’t open the door until you have a cure.
Too easy, you say? But simplicity is not this strategy’s only virtue. There’s good precedent, too.
At the beginning of the 17th century, Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, wanted to crack the secret of porcelain — a secret that had eluded all but the Chinese for about a thousand years. So what did he do?
He got hold of an alchemist, a fiendishly clever young man called Johann Friedrich Boettger, and locked him in a laboratory.
In 1707, Boettger made a breakthrough, producing a red clay paste that could be fired at high temperature and made to resemble metal or precious stone. But it wasn’t the “white gold” (as porcelain had come to be known) he and Augustus were seeking. He remained in his prison.
Still, he was onto something. And the next year, having located a source of porcelain’s secret ingredient — kaolin, a clay of very fine particles and pure white color — he had it.
Augustus released him, and immediately established a porcelain factory on the outskirts of Dresden, in a place called Meissen.
Such a significant discovery could not be kept secret, and through bribes to Meissen employees, the so-called “Arcanum” (the porcelain formula) was shared with others. Porcelain factories were soon established across Europe.
The rage for porcelain — or china, as it was also known — swept all before it. Aristocrats, royalty, and the wealthiest merchants all wanted their tables decorated with gaily painted conversation pieces: “jellies, biscuits, sugar plums and cream have long since given way,” wrote Horace Walpole in 1753, “to harlequins, gondoliers, Turks, Chinese, and Shepherdesses of Saxon China.” From table decorations, porcelain figures were elevated to the status of an independent art form.
The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford has one of the finest collections of Meissen porcelain in America, much of it given to the museum by J. Pierpont Morgan during World War I. Many fine large-scale examples are on display upstairs in the recently reopened European galleries. But some smaller, rarely seen pieces designed by Johann Joachim Kaendler (1706-1775) are the subject of a succinct, humorous, and delightful show in two adjacent downstairs galleries.
Who was Johann Kaendler? He was the son of a clergyman from Saxony. In 1730, Augustus appointed him court sculptor, and the following year he joined the newly established factory at Meissen. Over the course of his career he created more than 2,000 porcelain models, earning immortality in the process.
Kaendler was really a sculptor. He was willing — and indeed eager — to try things in the medium that had never previously been attempted, either in Asia or Europe. Among his first creations, in the 1730s, were animals he modeled during a monthlong stay at the Royal Zoo.
He wanted to make his creatures as lifelike as possible — even to the point of decorating their bases with plants to evoke their natural habitat. The galleries upstairs at the Wadsworth include pet squirrels, life-size pheasants, and a sparrow hawk ripping out the entrails of a dead rodent.
The show itself includes a roller (a type of bird) on the hunt for a squirrel, which is shown scurrying out of sight around the same tree trunk on which the roller is perched.
Among other arresting tableaux Kaendler modeled is “The Gout Sufferer,” which shows a seated man groaning in agony as a girl tends to his unshod foot, its big toe flexed in anticipation of further pain.
Details like this remind us of the artistic ambition behind so many of Kaendler’s creations. If such objects were initially intended as mere conversation pieces — more durable examples of figurines that, before the arrival of porcelain, had been made out of sugar paste — he soon transformed them into something else: no less witty or beautiful, but far more sophisticated as sculptural objects, and enlivened at every point by the kind of delicate emotional nuance we admire in the greatest 18th-century painting.
“Shepherd Lovers,” for instance — one of the highlights of the new show — takes a conventional subject and gives it a kind of excruciating erotic pitch, hinging almost entirely on delicate hand gestures.
The right hand of the shepherd, who is clad in turquoise trousers and black shoes with red laces and purple heels, hovers an inch above the head of a big-eyed pug, which subtly cranes its neck to receive his affection. His other hand, meanwhile, hovers an inch below the languidly hovering fingers of his lover, who wears a yellow floral skirt and astonishing red-and-yellow-striped pumps, and holds a dear lamb in her lap.
Both she and the lamb incline their heads amorously. Her smiling lips are an inch from the shepherd’s. The whole tableau, in other words, is on the cusp of consummation, and we swoon along with the four creatures in it.
Other highlights of the show include a selection of figures inspired by the commedia dell-arte, the great Italian improvisational theater by which Antoine Watteau and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, the greatest painters of the 18th century, were also inspired. A passionate lover of theater, Kaendler was prompted to action by the visit of a troupe from Venice in 1738.
Kaendler’s humor — a light wit tethered tightly to a bright but domesticated idea of beauty — is evident throughout the show. Most of this humor is visual, or really sculptural; it does not extend to “gags” one could verbally recount. But some of the stories behind these pieces are themselves amusing.
A series of figurines features grape pickers, drunken peasants, miners, a court jester, and a tailor riding a goat. The latter rather cruelly depicts a count’s tailor. He had requested the honor of a seat at the king’s court banquet as recompense for all the good work he had done on the count’s costumes.
Kaendler mocks him by showing him dressed as an aristocrat but gormlessly waving his tailor’s scissors aloft as he sits astride a common goat.
The figurine no doubt found a place at the banquet table; the tailor did not.
Miniature World in White and Gold: Meissen Porcelain by Johann Joachim Kaendler
At Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford. Through January 2017.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.