September 2008 | Spotting a few plates from the Vienna porcelain manufactory in an antiques shop in the Camden Passage, London, in 1994 was the beginning of it all. Today, Richard Baron Cohen’s Twinight Collection is the largest assemblage in private hands of early nineteenth-century porcelain from the royal manufactories at Sèvres, Berlin, and Vienna, rivaled only, perhaps, by museum collections like that of the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. This month an exhibition of a fine selection from this splendid collection opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, after traveling for a year in Europe.
What made a successful businessman from New York fall in love with this fragile material, the details of which are often so minutely painted as to be hardly visible except on the closest examination? Cohen describes his passion with one word, “precision.” He is fascinated by the refined painting achieved by the major continental porcelain manufac-tories in a time of transition from highly developed artistry to industrial technology. But then, he also likes to commune with his collection. “I believe that objects have a soul,” he says. Playing with words, he coined the name Twinight for both his house and his collection while enjoying the delicate pink of twilight, his favorite time of day, on a beautiful beach near his house. From the time he wakes each morning to the sight of colorful botanical plates of 1823 to 1832 from Berlin’s Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur (Royal Porcelain Manufactory; KPM), until darkness descends, he takes great joy in the porcelains throughout his house.
Many of the objects in Cohen’s collection have important provenances. Numerous examples bear likenesses of emperors, kings, queens, princesses, and generals that identify them as royal gifts, and their stately splendor is often enhanced by rich neoclassical ornament in raised, incised, or polished gold. But there are also more subtle aspects to the porcelain of this period. Botanical flower painting, for example, is one of the most difficult skills for a porcelain painter to acquire. It requires a deep knowledge of nature and a mastery of color, for the changing “moods” of enamels when being fired have always presented porcelain painters with enormous challenges. In addition, the art of botanically correct yet decorative porcelain painting requires a large palette of colors, and this did not develop until about 1800. The expanding palette developed in Vienna—including the famous deep blue, Leither-Blau, named after the factory´s chemist Joseph Leithner (active 1770–1829), orange, and a bright chrome green—was greatly admired by the other important manufactories in Europe. Chemists and artists began to cooperate with one another and factory directors exchanged samples and recipes, all of this while Europe was dominated by the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. Indeed, additional stimulus for creativity occurred when the Congress of Vienna met from 1814 to 1815 to lay out a new order on the map of Europe. “Nationality” received a new meaning, and local landscapes and depictions of the latest architectural achievements made perfect subjects for garnitures of vases or breakfast services ordered as diplomatic gifts by and for the many royal courts involved in the negotiations. throughout his house.