NEW YORK – Humans have eaten soup for thousands of years but have served them from tureens for only a few hundred. Dinnerware designers elevated the large covered serving bowl into the form dubbed the tureen in the early 18th century and quickly understood its potential as an artistic showpiece. Hosting a dinner party is known as entertaining, after all, and serving soup from a vessel festooned with maidens, cherubs, cornucopias, garlands, painted landscape scenes and other expensive, labor-intensive frippery that enchants and holds the eye certainly counts as entertaining.
It’s not clear who invented the tureen, or where, but it probably emerged from France, a nation that loves its soups. The origin of the word has not been pinned down, but it could come from “terrine,” a covered container used for making the dish of the same name.
Tureens debuted in an era when soup was traditionally the first course on a menu. Ladling that soup from a fabulous-looking tureen set the tone for the evening: This is an elegant experience, and you and a select few others have been invited to share it. As dinner parties evolved, it became standard for hosts to offer two contrasting soups—for example, a dark-colored, heavy game meat soup as well as a lighter, more broth-like one. That meant dinner party hosts had to own at least two tureens, doubling the opportunities to dazzle their guests and show off their wealth.
Some tureens were ornamented with animals, such as ducks, rabbits or deer. The appearance of a bird or beast on the outside might signal what food is inside, but not always. Freeman’s sold a circa 1760s Qianlong period Chinese export porcelain tureen shaped like a goose, but the odds are it never held a soup or other dish made from the bird. In all likelihood, it was meant purely as eye candy. Standing just over a foot high, it’s exquisitely painted and sculpted. The unknown artisans went to the trouble of articulating the goose’s wingtips and lifting them away from its body, and they explicitly modeled its tucked-in feet rather than painting them on or leaving them out entirely.
People love figurative tureens now as much as they did in the 18th century. Freeman’s sold the porcelain goose, which would have been a specialty item when new, for $50,000. “Novelty forms are always very popular because not as many are available,” says Ben Farina, head of Asian arts at Freeman’s. “For collectors, they’re not only rare forms, but a bit of sculpture. When they’re not being used, they can sit on a sideboard as decoration.”
The Chinese export porcelain goose tureen Freeman’s offered was single, but other examples dating to the same period have come with identical mates. Farina cannot confirm whether the goose once had a gander. “It’s not impossible. It would make some sense if it was a large service, but I don’t want to say,” he said. “Sometimes you do see pairs together. Whether they started life together is another question.”
Farina also suggested that animal-form tureens might recall the medieval practice of carrying whole roasted birds or wild boar into a dining hall to the delight of the guests. “I think these tureens were entertaining pieces, showpieces carried into the hall in front of the diners,” he says.
The talented staff at Minton, an English majolica producer active during Victorian times, created several pieces they called tureens, though the vessels don’t seem to be designed to hold soup. One of Minton’s most beloved pieces, a game tureen decorated with depictions of the heads of rabbits and ducks, has earned the nickname “the Bunny tureen.”
Michael Strawser of Strawser Auction Group has handled five Bunny tureens in the last 30 years and auctioned one dating to 1878 for $22,000. Strawser also sold an equally rare Minton fish tureen, featuring a clever lemon-shaped handle, from 1876 for $15,500.
Minton certainly recognized how the tureen form could make a superlative canvas for its artisans. “Minton is famous for the crispness of the painting,” Strawser says. “With other companies, you see the painting run from one section to another. Here, there’s a lot of extra detail, such as showing the actual hair on the rabbits.”
When Jean Puiforcat tackled the tureen, he stripped it down while keeping its opulence. The fourth-generation French silversmith knew that an abundance of decorative flourishes on a piece of silver holloware could conceal any number of flaws. His circa 1925 silver tureen and stand is spectacular in its simplicity. He and his clients lived in the time of Art Deco, and he streamlined the serving piece accordingly. The luxury is in the quality of the craftsmanship—Puiforcat didn’t need to hide his silversmithing mistakes, because he didn’t make any—and in accents fashioned from semiprecious stones.
“This is a really fine example of what he’s known for. It’s iconic Art Deco, and it’s as much a sculptural object as a functional one,” says David Halpern of Millea Bros, speaking of the 1925 Puiforcat tureen and stand that the auction house sold for $35,000 in 2016. “It’s clean, but it’s not so reductionist that it doesn’t have intricacy to it.”
Halpern affirms that the fact of its being a tureen helped push the bidding to almost twice the high estimate of $12,000 to $18,000. “What part of a table service is going to be this large and complex?” he asks. “Tureens are very suited to being monumental and important.”
While he can’t confirm whether the winner of the Puiforcat tureen has since used it to serve guests, Halpern says people continue to buy and use tureens, even if they might not use them in precisely the same ways as past generations did: “I think they buy them because they’re beautiful, and they think, “Won’t it be fun to trot out at a dinner party?’ People are going to want to get together and socialize. They want to make a point of saying ‘We are together and we are celebrating.’”