Inventory Number HOG048
Size 18" h x 9" w
Material Glazed stoneware
Period Art Nouveau, Japonist
Country of Origin France
Year Made C. 1895
This green-glazed vase testifies to the creative mind of its creator, French ceramist, interior designer, and art collector Georges Hoentschel. The artist gained a reputation for his large-scale vases, molded in atypical shapes. This piece is a representative example of his work. An unusually long neck comes out of a complex structure suggesting a turtle’s shell, surrounded by two arms on each side, and supported by a prominent base.
Beyond the barest facts, little is known about the ceramics career of Georges Hoentschel.[i] Best remembered today as a collector and decorator, Hoentschel sold his collection of French decorative arts to John Pierpont Morgan in 1906, who later donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Born in 1855 to a wealthy family in Montmarte, Hoentschel found in his financial security the freedom to collect relics from the past. These objects helped shape his artistic aesthetic by providing him with a diverse vocabulary to draw from. Trained as an upholsterer, his career soon transcended easy definition as he engaged the roles of artist, designer, interior designer, collector, and salesman with equal verve.
Hoentschel’s interest in ceramics stemmed from his friendship with Jean Carriès, whose studio he acquired after the artist’s death in 1894. Using the same facility and workers, he continued the production of stoneware but probably in the capacity of a designer rather than a craftsman. His earliest work was more formally restrained than his later productions and reflected his affinity for the Japanese ceramics. Even at the Paris Exposition in 1900, the majority of his vessels still reflected the gourd forms and clean shapes that had dominated his earlier work. As late as March 1901, when Hoentschel’s work was exhibited at Tiffany Studios in New York, a reviewer called attention not to the quirkiness of his forms, but to their simplicity and restraint. The Evening Post stated: “It is curious to note how perfectly these men [Hoentschel and “other experimenters in France”] are to follow in the track of the most simple-minded designers of pots and plates that the world has ever seen: the Japanese village potters…".[ii] Based on extant photographs of exhibitions he participated in, and the limited descriptions in the press, it is likely that this vase--along with other dynamically-shaped vessels Hoentschel designed--dates to 1901 or later.
Precise details regarding the sources of Hoentschel’s designs remain obscured, but a number of his vessels relied upon South and East Asian precedents, mainly Japanese and Chinese forms.[iii] Given the interest in Orientalism that swept through the West at the end of the nineteenth century—and Hoentschel’s own collection of Japanese art and direct ties to Japan through his work on the Akasaka Palace—it is not surprising that this aesthetic informed his ceramics. Notable, though, is the depth and breadth of his knowledge; not only did he absorb elements of Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan Buddhist design, but this vase demonstrates his familiarity with Hindu mythology and Vedic texts. In Amrita Vase Hoentschel adapted the story of Vishnu creating the nectar of immortality, using the tortoise shell, the craggy peak, and serpent handles reconfigured through the lens of Art Nouveau.
Like the ceramist who seeks immortality through his work, the myth Hoentschel depicted is one of creation, transformation, the forging of something indelible out of the earth; in this sense it mirrors the very process of clay’s transformation from cold, wet earth to finished vessel. Like Hoentschel with his workshop, Vishnu had to gather materials from the earth, convince competing workmen to cooperate, and ultimately place himself as the very anchor that secured the transformation’s success. While Vishnu’s goal was the creation of amrita from the oceans of milk, he had to rely upon assistance from the lesser deities, demons, plants, Mandara, and the serpent Vasuki to complete the task. In his avatar of Kurma (the tortoise), Vishnu anchored Mandara by letting it pierce his shell:
The divinities… undertook the acquirement of the beverage of immortality. They collected various kinds of medicinal herbs, and cast them into the sea of milk… They then took the mountain Mandara for the staff, the serpent Vasuki for the cord, and commenced to churn the ocean for the Amrita. … Hari himself, in the form of a tortoise, served as a pivot for the mountain, as it was whirled around.[iv]
Whether Hoentschel relied upon a text, or a visual source, or a combination of the two for the design of this vase remains unknown. Yet, if the myth provides some essential grounding for the vase that locates it in the fascination for Orientalism in the late-nineteenth century, it is necessarily mute about the manner that Hoentschel’s artistic vision transformed and envisioned the narrative. For while the story appeared in numerous print sources throughout the nineteenth century none of these are close enough to suggest direct appropriation. Prints depicting this story were distributed as early as 1810 in Edward Moor’s The Hindu Pantheon, a remarkable collection of Indian mythology that was reprinted regularly throughout the nineteenth century, and a complete translation of the Sanskrit appeared no later than 1840.[v] In 1832 Charles Coleman published a variant of this image, and extant examples of gouache on paper paintings in the Victoria and Albert Museum from the mid-nineteenth century confirm the myth’s popularity.[vi] In addition to the numerous English sources for the image and text, this myth also appeared in French translations as early as 1848 and Charles Coleman’s image appeared as early as 1885 in a French text.[vii]
Unlike the numerous visual representations of this myth, Hoentschel’s vase has no Vishnu atop the mountain. Rather, he pares down the story to its essential elements—Kurma, Mandara, and Vasuki—in a manner that encourages a metaphoric, rather than literal, reference to the processes of creation, immortality, and transformation. This vessel is a powerful example of Hoentschel’s mature aesthetic because it speaks to the core of the artist himself: his role as creator, balance of Eastern and Western sensibilities, and his position as an artist of the moment who preserved and used the past for inspiration.
[i] Nicole Hoentschel, Georges Hoentschel (Saint-Rémy-en-l’Eau: Editions Monelle Hayot, 1999) is the primary biography of the artist, yet even this has little to say about his ceramics. As Jean Soustiel wrote in his contribution, “Le céramiste”: “It is not my role here to analyze the work of Georges Hoentschel "ceramist". At the request of Nicole Hoentschel, I have only tried, in these few pages, awakening for me many memories, to raise a piece of history hidden for half a century behind the sleeping windows of the house of Clichy.” (page 114, in French, translation mine). See also: Danielle Kisluk-Grosh, “‘All Beautiful in Form and Delicious in Color:’ Hoentshel and Ceramics,” in Salvaging the Past: Georges Hoentschel and French Decorative Arts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New Haven: Yale University Press in conjunction with Bard Graduate Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013).
[ii] R.S., “At the Tiffany Studios,” The Evening Post: New York, March 28, 1901.
[iii] Denise Patry Leidy, “A Buddhist Source for a Stoneware Basket by Georges Hoentschel,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 49 (January 2014): 225-8.
[iv] The Vishnu Purana: A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition, trans. H.H. Hall (London: Trubner and Co., 1840, repr. 1864), 143. Hari is another name for Vishnu. In the form of the tortoise he is referred to as Kurma.
[v] Edward Moor, The Hindu Pantheon (London: T. Bensley, 1810), plate 49. This was subsequently reprinted in Rev. Allen Page Moor, ed., Plates Illustrating the Hindu Pantheon, Reprinted from the Work of Edward Moor, F. R. S. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1861), plate 49; see also: Edward Moor, F. R. S., The Hindu Pantheon, A New Edition with Additional Plates, Condensed and Annotated by the Rev. W. O. Simpson (London: Trubner and Co., 1864), plate 25 (following page 110).
[vi] Charles Coleman, The Mythology of the Hindus, with Notices of Various Mountain and Island Tribes Inhabiting the Two Peninsulas of India and the Neighboring Islands (London: Parbury, Allen, and Co., 1832), plate 6. For the Victoria and Albert Museum collections, see Vishnu as Kurma (acc. no. IM.26-1917) and Vishnu as Kurma (acc. no. IM.22-1917).
[vii] See J. P. Migne, ed., Dictionnaire Universel, Historique et Comparatif de Toutes Les Religions du Monde (Paris: Chez J. P. Minge, 1848), 440. See also, J. P. Minge, ed., Les Livres Sacres de Toutes les Religions, Sauf le Bible (Paris: Chez J. P. Minge, 1866), 216. For the French publication of Cole