In Pécs in the 1850’s a ceramics factory, employing just a handful of people was established. The owner was the son of the respected Zsolnay family, Ignác, from whom the management of the factory was soon taken over by his brother, Vilmos. Vilmos Zsolnay succeeded in turning it into a high-quality factory in just a very short period of time.
Vilmos Zsolnay, who had painting ambitions, but became a businessman to follow his father’s wishes, started producing ceramics in the middle of the 19th century at the age of 25, with no previous experience. Not only de he have excellent taste and a great head for business, but he was also very receptive to technical innovations. His dedicated work was supported by his extended family, children, sons-in-law, later grandchildren, along with well-known contemporary artists, painters and sculptors, who regularly made designs for the factory.
The different decorative objects of the Zsolnay factory enjoyed overwhelming success from the 1870’s, and soon won several awards at world exhibitions. Their masterpieces were not only popular and sought-after in Hungary, but also abroad. Some of the luxury items, decorative objects, and sculptures were produced for the foreign market; their products fitted into the bourgeois environment of the time, making their way to Austria, England, Germany, France, America, Japan, India, and even Australia.
Zsolnay ceramics are now among the most valued pieces of museums and private collections all over the world; only the most fortunate collectors can purchase items they desire on the Hungarian and the international market at a very high price.
The work of enthusiastic art historians and collectors researching Zsolnay ceramics is facilitated by the fact that almost the entire documentation of the factory has been retained; the written documents, design plans, sample sheets and books containing forms and decorations.
The factory survived both World Wars, and remained in the ownership of the Zsolnay family until 1948, when it was nationalised.
The works of the factory between the end of the 1870’and the end of the 1880’s were characterised by an eclectic mix of styles and brilliant technical solutions.
The Zsolnay factory’s first important recognition was achieved at the world exhibition in Vienna in 1873, which had a decisive impact on the factory’s future.
The production of unique luxury items commenced; for which white ware, suitable for colourful decorations and high temperature refined stoneware.
The first designs were inspired by garden flowers, far away landscapes, folk-art motifs, and Egyptian antique forms; but old Hungarian motifs such as the pomegranate, and Turkish also appeared.
At the 1873 world exhibition in Vienna, Vilmos Zsolnay was awarded the order of Franz Joseph, and he also won the bronze medal and a certificate of merit. Zsolnay ceramics received a great number of orders from England, France, Russia, and America.
The World Exhibition in Paris in 1878 was an important milestone in the factory’s history; as a result of undiminished experimentation, richly decorated, shiny, high temperature, shrinking, cracking and smeared glazes were invented. The success was tremendous: the Zsolnay ceramics were awarded the gold medal, the so-called “Grand Prix”, and Vilmos Zsolnay was made a member of the Legion of Honour. Thank to the exhibition, regular relationships with foreign partners were established.
In the world exhibition held in Sydney in 1879-80 and in Melbourne in 1880-81, pieces were displayed that were made with new techniques such as the cloth of gold technique and the metal technique. In the world exhibition in Chicago in 1893, the eosin technique was introduced amid great prestige, and later the production of Art Nouveau pieces began.
At the World Exhibition in Antwerp in 1894 and in millennium exhibition in Budapest in 1896, vases with snakes, striated jugs with twisted bodies brought recognition to the factory. A year later, in 1897 in Brussels and in Saint Petersburg the overwhelming Art Nouveau brought great success.
Floral motifs, animal and human shapes, mythological themes appeared on the passionate, romantic, extravagant and sophisticated art pieces. The iridescent eosin technique with its thousand faces enabled a trick of the light on the surface of the ceramics, reminiscent of silk.
In 1900, at the World Exhibition in Paris bringing victory to art nouveau, the Zsolnay factory exhibited a completely new collection. The factory’s Art Nouveau pieces of art were awarded three gold medals. The wide range of products can be illustrated by the fact that there were over one hundred decorative objects with tulip motifs alone.
In 1900 Vilmos Zsolnay died, and the factory was taken over by his son, Miklós, who, continuing his father’s heritage, was committed to the form language of Art Nouveau and kept inventing with new forms, decors and glazes.
Miklós Zsolnay was always open to new ideas; his innovative experimental ideas, technological innovations, created, with the help of his trained workers, a quantity of artwork never seen before.