The Meissen Monkey Orchestra

The Meissen Monkey Orchestra

Meissen, Germany
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About The Meissen Monkey Orchestra

Johann Joachim Kaendler

In the mid-18th century, a distinct fascination with monkeys emerged. People adored depictions of dressed-up monkeys imitating human behavior. Meissen’s master designer Johann Joachim Kaendler (Seeligstadt 1706 – 1775 Meissen) tapped into this trend, using his anthropomorphized porcelain figures, dressed in Baroque style, to parody not only the musicians’ guild but also the minor foibles of the entire courtly society. His orchestra, consisting of 25 monkeys (according to Albiker 1959), was made up of a diverse range of musicians and singers. These musical creations were originally designed as table decorations for Baroque banquets, intended to entertain the invited guests and stimulate conversation.
The true thematic intent behind the Monkey Orchestra remains shrouded in mystery. Could it serve as a nuanced jest at the Saxon court orchestra, or perhaps, a broader satire of the aristocratic society? Yet amidst the conjecture, one thing stands unambiguous: this delightful allegory is imbued with elegance, wit, and a sly nod of jest. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that Mad- ame de Pompadour, the esteemed mistress of King Louis XV, is rumored to have secured one of the earliest Monkey Orchestras for her collection in 1753.
The vivid, three-dimensional monkeys drew their inspiration from France, where representa- tions of such primates made their way into decorative arts during the 18th century. These so-called “singeries” established themselves as a distinct subject from as early as the 16th century. This comically satirical genre, depicting monkeys in human form, conveyed both amusing and moral messages to its viewers, serving even then as a somewhat critical, mocking reflection of human behaviors. As beautifully illustrated by Jan Brueghel the Younger’s allegory of the Tulipomania), Western painters have long utilized the monkey to humorously portray moral values and less flattering human virtues. The motif of the monkey in art has thus, for over 500 years, acted as a societal mirror.

RS 217

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