by Jessica Walthew, Conservator at Cooper Hewitt

In the 18th century, European elite’s rapacious taste for luxury goods such as Asian porcelain wares reached a peak. To compete, local ceramics manufacturers were driven to develop innovative clay body recipes and glazes to match the translucency of true hard-paste porcelain. Cooper Hewitt’s collection has a wide representation of European porcelain manufacturers , and some of the pieces in the James Hazen Hyde Bequest, all allegorical figures on the theme of the Four Continents, caught the attention of Cooper Hewitt’s object conservators, senior curator Yao-Fen You (currently serving as acting director of Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center) and cataloguer Zenia Malmer. As Dr. You’s research revealed, a particularly interesting group of sculptures, though unmarked, can now be more securely associated with the Capodimonte manufactory and its royal patron, Charles of Bourbon, who moved the factory from Naples where he was King of the Two Sicilies to Madrid when he assumed the throne as King of Spain in 1759.

Xrays of Capodimonte Europe (left) and Africa (right) sculptures, showing the hollow interiors of the figures and how drapery and other features have been modeled. Image credit: Cooper Hewitt Conservation

Conservation work on the group revealed similar patterns of past restorations, but the exquisite original details are what captured our attention most: faux marble textures are as detailed as the fine gradations of veins and muscles in the nearly nude male River gods seated at the allegorical figures’ feet. Along with removing past restorations and replacing selected ones with new repairs, technical investigation included taking X-rays to understand how the pieces are constructed as well as analysis of the glazes and ceramic body, which confirmed that the pieces have technical signatures associated with the Capodimonte factory, particularly known for its soft-paste porcelain. Dr. Thomas Lam at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) analyzed these pieces along with several other examples of contemporaneous porcelains by different manufacturers, sparking a more in-depth collaborative research effort. 

This summer, the museum’s objects conservators have been working with Dr. Lam and summer intern Grace Dunham (of Alfred University, supervised by Dr. William Carty) on further experimental research into porcelain manufacturing and firing.  Grace has used recipes derived from Dr. Lam’s analysis to recreate the pastes (clay bodies) so that we can learn more about how they behave prior to firing and the effect of kiln temperature on the resulting wares. 

Our research collaborators Grace and Dr. Lam visited the conservation lab to discuss analysis in progress, shown on the iPad at front right. At left are Asia and America from the Capodimonte Four Continents group. Image credit: Jessica Walthew

Reflecting on the political context of the pieces, which were most likely a royal commission during a period of rapid imperial expansion, has drawn us to deeper scrutiny of the racial dynamics of the figural representations of the Four Continents (Europe, Asia, Africa, and America). The pieces were recently 3d scanned for inclusion in a pan-Smithsonian initiative, Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past, that will soon be featured in an online platform with more discussion of how these over 250-year-old artworks initiate contemporary conversations about race and representation in museum collections.

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