We have not yet found any comparable examples to these rare figures in the literature on European ivory carvings. The style of the original octagonal bases combining both tortoiseshell and ivory in the baroque taste suggest a reliable dating to the late 17th or early 18th century. They are most interesting as they may very well be prototypes for the porcelain examples produced at the Meissen porcelain manufactory, to which they are nearly identical in size and form. Moreover, they offer a rare glimpse into the transitional period, in the early 18th century, which marked the fading of the art of ivory carving and the beginning of porcelain figure modeling.
They are depicting monkeys acting like, and dressed as, human beings. Known as ‘singeries’ (derived from the French singe for monkey), they were a popular subject in both the fine and decorative arts, first appearing in France, then spreading to Germany. Although it is an ancient tradition to depict the monkey in the guise of a human, it did not come to the fore until the late 17th century with the designs of Jean Berain (1637-1711) who incorporated monkeys in a variety of whimsical ways in furniture design executed by A.C. Boulle. They became quite a popular subject in France in the 1740’s and 1750’s with the artist Christopher Huet (1700-59), who decorated several royal and noble residences with monkeys in various human pursuits. Other artists who enjoyed depicting them were Claude Gillot and later Antoine Watteau.
The monkey band as a figural subject in the decorative arts is immediately associated with the porcelain examples (Affenkapelle) made at Meissen and other factories from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. Indeed, Huet’s drawings of monkey musicians are believed to be the original source of inspiration for the band figures produced at Meissen in 1753. Madame de Pompadour (1721-64) owned an extensive Meissen band, which she purchased through Lazare Duvaux in 1753.
These rare ivories may be interpreted as a precursor to the Meissen examples, which were modeled by J.K. Kaendler and Peter Reinicke, especially in terms of the role ivory carvers played in the transition from the use of ivory for ‘kleinplastik’ to those figures made in the newly-discovered porcelain medium. Ivory carvers such as Wilhelm Kruger (1680-1756) and J. Kohler (1669-1736) were active in Dresden at this time and Johann Christoph Ludwig von Lucke (1703-80) is recorded as working as a modeler at Meissen in 1728.1 Before coming to Meissen, Kaendler worked with the ivory sculptor, Balthasar Permoser at the Zwinger. Ivory carving, which in the 17th century was considered a high form of sculpture, and maintained a significant place in the princely ‘kunstkammer’, eventually was marginalized in the early 18th century with the advent of porcelain production. This, in effect, spelled the demise of this time-honored craft and ivory carving as an art form dwindled. Nevertheless, during this transition to the new favored material several models were adopted from ivory originals and translated into porcelain. As Malcolm Baker2 and William Honey3 have observed in their scholarly studies of this subject, porcelain modelers used existing ivories as casts for their porcelain figures.
These figures are identical to the Meissen models (see fig. 4,) and it has been the general opinion that the sources for the porcelain models were derived from the drawings by Huet. While it may very well be possible that he was the progenitor in the design of the monkey band models, it is just as possible, if not more likely, that the figures in ivory themselves served as the actual physical prototypes in the making of the porcelain examples, given the close relationship of the carver to the porcelain modeler at the Meissen factory.
1 William B. Honey, Dresden China, Tudor Publishing, 1946, p. 41.
2 Anthony Hughes and Erich Ranfft, editors, Sculpture and Its Reproductions,
(Malcolm Baker, chapter 4, The Ivory Multiplied), Reaktion Books, 1997, p. 65.
3 Honey, ibid, p. 179.