Pottery figure of a boy holding a basket with two young birds, attributed to Johann Matthias Jansen

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Potsdam, Germany
C. 1780 - 1785
Terracotta, mother-of-pearl, glass, Lime wood base, shells
44.5 cm

P. Macnaghten, 'Pearl and Paint', dans Country Life, 25 mar. 1954, pp. 874-876.


Private collection, Belgium, 2015

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Attributed to Johann Matthias Jansen, Potsdam, ca. 1780-1785.

The figure is modelled in pottery and is standing on a low and painted wooden stand. His coat, pants and the top part of the stand are decorated with mother-of-pearl and various types of shell. With his left hand the boy is holding a basket enclosing two birds that are looking towards his right hand with which the attentive boy seems to feed them.

ohann Matthias Jansen (Potsdam 1751-1794 Königsberg) initially studied art under Andreas Ludwig Krüger in Potsdam, Germany. In 1770 he visited Vienna, then passed through Rome before ending his travels in Paris in 1773. Back in Germany, Jansen worked in Berlin, creating a number of paintings, portraits and encaustic works, as well as the interior decoration of the Dobbelsches Theatre. In 1790, he was appointed Director of the School of Art and Design in Königsberg where he was entrusted with the interior decoration of the theatre, including the stage curtain.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, objects made with shells and paintings of shells were displayed in cabinets of curiosity and were highly prized by princely courts. Among the earliest, 17th-century, sculptures decorated with shells are those exhibited in the Museo degli Argenti, Florence. Also, palaces were embellished with the costly and exotic material: for example, the Gottorf Palace in Schleswig had an entire room devoted to shell collections. In 1751, Frederick the Great dedicated a grotto to Neptune in his Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam. It was entirely decorated with shells.

The present figure is very similar to the pair of relief panels depicting two music-making men that were sold with Christie’s Paris in 2009 (Christie’s Paris, Collection Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé, 23-25 February 2009, lot 646). The type of dress and the manner in which the shells and the small plaques of mother-of-pearl are applied, in rows of overlapping fiches, are executed in the same fashion. Christie’s states that the two relief panels are part of a larger group of comparable works of which four were offered at auction: two depict ‘the gardener' and 'the falconer', and are described as virtually identical works to the pair sold at Christie’s. They were signed by Jansen and are thought to have been created for Frederick the Great. Later, they formed part of the collection of Christabel, Lady Aberconway, and were sold with Sotheby’s Monaco in 1976 (Sotheby's, Monaco, 23 - 24 June 1976, lot 38). Another pair was sold with Sotheby’s Monte Carlo in 1977 (Sotheby's, Monte Carlo, 3 May 1977, lot 50).

Stealing birds’ nests was a common sport for eighteenth-century boys. The basket or nest of birds in this boy’s hands functions as a marker or attribute of his youth. Moreover, birds, sometimes caged, are often used as an allegory of spring. Bear in mind, for example, the porcelain Meissen sculptures devoted where this theme is widely used. In a wider context, the tending of the boy to the small birds may also stand for his transition into manhood, where playful teasing of the birds may stand for the young man’s appeal to women.

Compare: Christie’s Paris, Collection Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé, 23-25 February 2009, lot 646 


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