Dresden — from the Sorbish, meaning “dwellers in the marshy forest,” was transformed in the late Renaissance from a Slav village to the jewel in the crown of the Duchy of Sachsen. This evolution had much to do with the art patronage of two monarchs, Frederick Augustus I, Elector of Saxony (1670-1733) — also known as August the Strong due to his imposing stature and physical strength — and his son Frederick Augustus II (1696-1763) — later Augustus III, King of Poland.
The forum for this display is “The State Collections Dresden, Mirror of the World,” a recently opened exhibition that will travel to Tokyo after its current showing at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, that is one of the major projects of “Germany Year in Japan.”
The “mirror” metaphor of the title runs through the exhibition in various forms; as in the Meissen porcelain copies of Chinese and Japanese ceramics that allude to artistic reflections of the East in the West, and, more generally, to Dresden’s artistic culture, which was modeled after the French court of Louis XIV, whose palace in Versailles housed the famous Hall of Mirrors.
Frederick I was an avid collector of porcelain, and under his reign it came to exceed the value of silver. In 1710, the first “hard-paste” porcelain factory in Europe was established in nearby Meissen and the reproduction of coveted Chinese and Japanese examples began. By 1721, the king’s collection of oriental and Meissen porcelain, housed in the Japanisches Palais and on show to the public, exceeded 25,000 objects. The exhibition comprehensively covers this development in the history of porcelain in Europe by displaying, among many other such groupings, Japanese Arita plates and mugs beside faithful Meissen copies.
Under Frederick’s reign, demand for goldsmiths and jewelers increased, and the popularity of diamonds soared. This penchant for extravagance was catered to with glittering trinkets cut by ace diamond-cutter Jean Jacques Pallard, a cabinet of which are displayed here. The king’s love of ostentation is also found in works like the equestrian portrait
Following Frederick-Augustus I’s death in 1733, Frederick-Augustus II took up where his father left off in terms of art patronage. While not as fanatical about porcelain, he nevertheless amassed large dowries for his three daughters through commissions from the Meissen factory, which led to the girls’ appellation, “porcelain princesses.” Frederick-Augustus
Apparently Frederick wanted Canaletto to paint for his court, but ended up with his nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, who was invited to Dresden in 1747, and became the official court painter the following year. While Frederick was transforming Dresden architecturally, Bellotto was commissioned to put it down on canvas for posterity. Other court painters had equally well-defined tasks, like Johann Samuel Mock who was able to depict court ceremonies and military parades.
Dresden’s landscape painting tradition is given a separate section, and is represented by various luminaries including Johann Christian Klengel and Adrian Zingg, who was a master of the sepia tradition closely associated with the city.
Arriving in Dresden in the final years of the 18th century, Caspar David Freidrich became the leading figure in the German Romantic Movement that dominated landscape painting in the years after 1800. One of the Romantics’ ideals was to create devotional images in which God was made manifest in nature, and Freidrich painted landscapes with symbolic motifs such as paths and distant hills. He also used the device of distinctly separating the foreground from the background without any mediating area between, making the symbolic separation between this world and the next all the more striking.
In addition there is “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” by Vermeer as well as several perspectival etchings by Durer and Rembrandt’s “Rape of Gannymede.”
There is also a selection of armor, furnishings, medals plusmeasuring devices like armillary spheres — representing positions of the celestial bodies — and sundials.
Just as the collection amassed by Louis XIV became the French National Collection at the Louvre, the works amassed by the two Frederick-Augustuses became the core of the State Collections of Dresden. For those fortunate enough to have caught the “Fastes de Versailles” exhibition examining the art patronage of the French kings in Kobe or Tokyo two years ago, the structural affinities between the two collections are fascinating, but it was Louis XIV’s single-minded commissioning and patronage that set the standard of the day.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.