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by Wendell Garrett
|The elegance and sophistication of French art in the 18th century found a consummate expression in the porcelain of Vincennes, later known as Sèvres. The French national porcelain factory opened in the Chateau de Vincennes in 1738, but the production of very fine porcelain did not begin until 1751 with the appointment of Jean-Jacques Bachelier as art director of the factory. The next year Louis XV became the principal shareholder, possibly under the influence of his mistress Mme de Pompadour, who also had a financial interest in the factory. In 1753 the concern was styled "Manufacture Royale de Porcelaine" in a royal edict that was issued to strengthen the factory's privileges and to prohibit the manufacture elsewhere in France of porcelain and white pottery decorated like porcelain.
Products of the early Vincennes period are in soft-paste and modeled on the designs of the Miessen factory. Soft-paste is actually an imitation of true porcelain, made mainly of white clay and ground glass and fired at a low temperature -- under 1,250 degrees centigrade. Glazes derived from lead were then added to soft-paste porcelain after it had been fired and required a second firing at even lower temperatures.
There is a monumental Sèvres soft-paste porcelain vase in the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino, Ca., dated 1758 and decorated in the Pompadour rose ground. Acquired from the dealer Joseph Duveen in 1927, the porcelain has been firmly glued to a gilt wood mount (earthquake-proof!) and the information concerning date and decorator marks cannot be checked. The only other known vase of this shape is at the Rothschild English country house, Waddesdon Manor, and dated 1763.
Between 1740 and 1756 Vincennes objects modeled in porcelain clay fell into several categories: children at play, birds, natural flowers and gilded decorations. The application of gold to porcelain was the exclusive right of the royal factory, which appears to have been respected during the reign of Louis XV.
The King, increasingly interested in porcelain manufacture, expressed a wish to transfer the factory from Vincennes to a place nearer to Versailles. The factory was moved in 1756 to a site on the northern side of Sèvres and taken over by the King, who became its chief client and top salesman. An annual sale of Sèvres products was held in the King's private dining room at Versailles, and courtiers were invited and expected to buy. The double monogram of Louis XV -- crossed Ls painted in blue -- was then officially adopted as its mark, along with another letter to indicate the date of manufacture, and appeared on the reverse of pieces made by Sèvres.
Hard-paste porcelain was made from 1768 onwards, when deposits of kaolin (white china clay) were discovered in Limousin. (Hard paste, or true porcelain, is made of kaolin and petuntse, which fuse to a glassy mix when fired at a temperature higher than 1,250 degrees.) Because of this new paste, the range of colored grounds could be considerably extended, as could the vocabulary of decoration. Table wares were modeled in a restrained Rococo style, and the best of these have brilliantly colored enamel grounds, marking a sharp departure from the white backgrounds characteristic of earlier French porcelain.
The most famous of these grounds are the dark blue (1749), turquoise (1752), pea-green (1756) and the aforementioned "rose Pompadour," which was little used after 1766. These colors were decorated with delicately tooled thick gold scrolls and form the background of reserved white medallions or panels painted with flowers, birds or figure objects. The brilliance of gilding and color gives such wares an air of well-bred opulence most appealing to the aristocratic and wealthy.
Towards the end of the 18th century, new decorative designs began to appear, including imitations of fabric and representations of flowers and birds often faithful to natural history books. There were also innumerable variations on polychrome patterns based on archaeological excavations in Italy and called the "Etruscan style."
Painted porcelain plaques used to decorate furniture or decorative objects such as clocks, barometers and escritoires were very successful. Marchands merciers bought them in large quantities and had them mounted by the best cabinetmakers. Porcelain plaques were also prominent in the interior decoration of drawing rooms, given pride of place alongside paintings. In 1779 Louis XVI commissioned nine hunting pictures from the factory; there are also copies based on paintings by Carle Van Loo (1705-1765) originally made for Gobelins tapestries.
But the most celebrated of the Sèvres wares of this period are the vases. Although earlier vases were designed as containers for flowers, they later assumed a purely decorative function. Potpourri vases, intended to hold sweet-smelling bouquets, were pierced to release the perfume of their contents.
Apart from vases, tableware services were the most important objects produced at Sèvres. Bowls and cups, in particular, were made in large quantities. Tableware proper consisted of two sets of plate services: the soup service, with hollow bowls, and the dessert service with large flat plates. Ice-buckets with flat lids were fitted with an inner lining of porcelain or metal. Fruit dishes were usually square, round or shell-shaped. Other dessert pieces included sugar basins on stands, groups of jam pots, and small ice-cream cups. At the end of the 18th century, the factory began producing highly ornate polychrome decoration on grounds imitating the most opulent materials, ornamented with gold and precious metals.
In 1793 the factory was declared State property, and the letters R.F. (Republique Francaise) were used as a mark in place of the royal cipher. Moulds of royal busts were broken and much undecorated porcelain was sold, to be bought by painters and decorated in their studios. The factory was extensively patronized by Napoleon, for whom some of the most ambitious products were made, such as huge vases decorated with allegories of his victories. Forms were based on antiquities or on the geometry of cylinder and sphere, and decoration was very rich with gilding and scenic painting. But the revolutionary period proved to be very difficult for a factory primarily dedicated to the production of luxury items.
The factory was reorganized in 1848 and the artists who had specialized in copying Old Master paintings on porcelain were dismissed. From this time on greater attention was applied to the porcelain itself, and a new emphasis on rather pale decorations (instead of opaque colors), which emphasized the quality of the paste, became apparent.
Since the middle of the 18th century to the present day, excellence and innovation have been the hallmarks of the Manufacture de Sèvres. As a result of the efforts of skilled artisans and talented artists, an array of remarkable masterpieces of consistently high quality was produced. Throughout its 250-year history Sèvres porcelain has been coveted by kings and emperors, as well as by privileged collectors and art museums.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American Decorative Arts at Sotheby's.