Sèvres: The History of Porcelain Fit for a King

One of a pair of Clodion vases, made at Manufacture Royale de Porcelaine de France, and given by Louis XVIII of France to Monsieur, his brother, future king Charles X. Hard-paste porcelain and gilt bronze, 1817.

One of a pair of Clodion vases, made at Manufacture Royale de Porcelaine de France, and given by Louis XVIII of France to Monsieur, his brother, future king Charles X. Hard-paste porcelain and gilt bronze, 1817.

There is a porcelain factory in France that in 1752 was designated as the Manufacture Royale de Porcelaine de France. France, no longer being a monarchy, there is no longer a “Royale” aspect to its name, nevertheless the Sèvres factory continues to produce porcelains fit for a king.

The town of Sèvres (pronounced “sev” with just the hint of an “r” at the end) is located two and a half miles southwest of Paris. However, to explore the history of Sèvres porcelain, one must first look to the town of Vincennes (pronounced “van-sen”), some two miles east of Paris, and further yet, the town of Chantilly (pronounced “Shan-tee-yee”), located 23 miles north-northeast of Paris.

Chantilly was the site of a soft-paste porcelain factory established in 1725. Porcelain is divided into two categories: hard paste, or true porcelain, and soft paste, or artificial porcelain. True porcelain is the result of combining two white clays, petuntze and kaolin. Petuntze is actually the Chinese term for little bricks; the name is derived from their practice of taking fusible feldspar or crystalline granite rocks, pulverizing them at the quarry site, and delivering them to the potter in the form of little bricks. Kaolin, the second ingredient of porcelain, is decomposed granite. It gets its name from Kao-ling, a mountain in Northern China near the town of Ching-te-Chen, where it was first obtained.

Kaolin is found in only a few places on earth. True porcelain is made by combining the kaolin and petuntze and firing the wares at a temperature no lower than 1,400 degrees Celsius or 2,552 degrees Fahrenheit. Fused together in the firing, the ingredients of true porcelain form a piece that is able to hold liquids, is impervious to acid, and is remarkably scratch resistant. Held up to the light, it is magically translucent, and unlike earthenware, it does not have to be glazed in order to be watertight. Artificial porcelain is a porcelain-like material made of substances other than kaolin and petuntze. The distinction stems from the different ingredients. There are various formulas; in England, limestone or animal bone ashes were included, while the glassy quality of French soft -paste porcelain results from its use of frit, an ingredient also found in glass.

The secrets involved in the making of true porcelain eluded the western world for centuries. Time and again, potters from several countries attempted to discover the mystery so that they could replicate the beauty of the pieces that were being imported, at great expense, from the Orient. The wares commonly known as Saint-Porchaire, made from about 1547 to about 1589 in France, are now thought to be the first European attempt that actually produced porcelain. That was soon followed by the wares known as porcelain de Medici made in Florence from about 1575 to 1600. Those formulas were apparently then lost, so from then on, until Johann Bottger’s 1709 success at Dresden, Europeans were not capable of producing true porcelain.

Ego, and the prospect of substantial financial rewards, led two brothers by the name Dubois to leave their management positions at the ceramics factory in Chantilly in the hopes of competing with Dresden. With the help of King Louis XV in 1738, they setup in a former horse-riding school in Vincennes and earnestly began to research. They hoped to be able to take the knowledge they had gained at Chantilly and, combined with the results of their research, bring the capability of making true porcelain to France.

For three years the Dubois brothers experimented. But success eluded them. Eventually, they were fired. One of their workmen, Francois Gravant, had gathered information pertaining to their experiments, and he sold the information to a member of the French Court. By 1745, a new company was organized at Vincennes; one of the principals was Orry de Fulvy, Louis XV’s minister of finance. The factory was still unable to produce true porcelain, but the soft-paste products produced there were well received. It was a particular favorite of Madame de Pompadour, the King’s mistress. She had considerable influence on the Court, and accounts of her life list her patronage and influence on the porcelain factory at Sèvres as her most lasting achievement.

Through Vincennes, she was able to combine her weakness for porcelain with her love of flowers. Beginning in 1748, the factory produced flowers made of soft-paste porcelain. Vases filled with hundreds of these exquisitely realistic “flowers” became the fashion. Madame de Pompadour reportedly once gave the king a surprise birthday party and decorated her home, inside and out, with porcelain flowers that had been scented to match nature. Her influence was great and, consequently, the factory was a success; so much so, that by 1752, the king had taken over its direction and awarded the factory the “Royale” designation.

Louis XV’s Gift to Pompadour

Prosperous, the facilities at Vincennes were deemed to be inadequate and in 1753 the factory moved to Sèvres; the new factory was built on land Louis XV had given Madame de Pompadour. Anxious to please her, in 1760 the King purchased the firm and proceeded to equip the factory with the best of everything.

King Louis XV of France equipped the Sèvres factory with the best of everything.

King Louis XV of France equipped the factory at Sevres with the best of everything.

Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, duchesse de Pompadour

Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, duchesse de Pompadour.

The first pieces made in Vincennes, still only capable of producing soft-paste porcelain, were with exception of the “flowers,” made primarily in rococo shapes. Many of the forms seemed to be borrowed by those already being used by French silversmiths. Early wares were decorated rather sparsely; motifs included small floral designs and Chinoiserie patterns. The designs made famous in Germany were adapted to the French taste. Important artists, gilders and sculptors were recruited to work at the Sèvres factory and technical achievements included the wonderful porcelain colors that were individually developed and introduced.

In 1745, the jaune jonquille background color was “invented.” It was a delightful daffodil yellow. In 1749 came bleu-de-roi, or royal blue; in 1752 bleu turquoise was introduced; and the famous pink called rose Pompadour was first used in 1757. It is sometimes incorrectly called rose Dubarry, but was actually developed prior to the beginning of the influence of the Comtesse Dubarry, who did not became the mistress of Louis XV until after 1768. Other early ground colors included bleu celeste, bleu lapis, gros bleu, apple green, and a purple called violet pensee.

Special effects included treating the background in such a manner that the porcelain resembles veined marble or tortoise shell; other patterns painstakingly replicated precious stones and minerals. On the early bleu lapis pieces, the background was painted on with a brush. These pieces are highly prized by collectors, although later examples where the pigment was applied directly onto the clay body, resulting in a more even application, have their own appeal.

Another success at Sèvres was biscuit, the production of unglazed pieces. Molded and then fired once and left without any further decoration or glaze, the early Sèvres biscuit pieces were so fine that they appeared to-be marble sculptures. Biscuit groups of children at play and allegorical figures soon found their way into the homes of the French nobility.

Louis XV served as the Sèvres factory’s most enthusiastic salesman. Once a year, the king’s personal apartments in Versailles were the site of a “sale,” where it was made obvious to the attendees that the level of esteem they would enjoy at Court was going to be directly related to the amount of their purchase. The royal patronage meant that Sèvres was awarded a number of lucrative commissions for official gifts of state, and when financial strains on the French treasury led to a meltdown of silver and gold table services previously used by the wealthy, large dinner services in porcelain were purchased as replacement.

Kaolin Deposits Discovered Near Limoges

The making of true porcelain by Sèvres would have to wait until the discovery of the kaolin deposits near Limoges. While the factory had earlier purchased the secret formula from a member of the Hannong family, famous for their production of faience in the eastern France town of Strasbourg, without kaolin, Sèvres was unable to capitalize on its knowledge of the formula. Initially, after the availability of kaolin was secured, the production of soft-paste porcelain continued to dominate, however, gradually the emphasis switched to true porcelain production.

This Sevres factory portrait plate of a young lady is beautifully hand-painted in intricate detail, was made in 1869.

This Sevres factory portrait plate of a young lady is beautifully hand-painted in intricate detail, was made in 1869.

During the reign of Louis XVI a new process was developed. It involved the application of colored translucent enamel over gold and silver foil; and resulting “jeweled decoration” was designed to simulate gems such as rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. The factory also produced porcelain plaques intended for use as inserts within furniture. The new queen, Marie Antoinette, patronized the factory as her predecessor, Marie Leczinska, had done. By 1779, the factory had essentially ceased to produce soft-paste porcelain and, although the results were different, owing to the harsher characteristics of true porcelain, the quality of the workmanship remained high. According to Sèvres factory records, it required two months’ work to produce just one plate of one of the services ordered by Marie Antoinette.

In the days immediately preceding the outbreak of the French Revolution, the Sèvres factory’s production records could have been used as an indicator of the chaos that was to follow. The nobility—the primary Sèvres customer—was leaving Paris in droves. To survive, the factory was forced to sell blank “seconds”; undecorated forms that for some reason or another did not meet its standards. The factory also sold decorated seconds. These were bought by other factories and independent porcelain painters, not only in France, but from around Europe, as well. If necessary, any existing decoration was removed, and the pieces were than painted. (These practices, by the way, resulted in pieces signed with the Sèvres mark—but actually not decorated by Sèvres artists—making their way onto the market). The factory survived the Revolution, but was on shaky financial ground. Many of the workers had left when the money for their wages was no longer available.

Enter Bonaparte

Enter Napoleon Bonaparte, who was soon to appoint Alexandre Brongniart as director of the Sèvres factory. No longer would pieces bear the royal crossed double “L” mark representing Louis XV and Louis XVI, that being the mark in use since the days when the factory was located in Vincennes. From 1793 and 1804, the initials “RF” representing Republic Franciase, replaced the kings’ monogram. In addition, in 1803-1804, pieces reflected the factory’s new title of Manufacture Nationale with the mark “M Nle.” With Napoleon’s elevation to emperor, the factory became the Manufacture Imperiale, the mark changing to “M Imple de Sèvres.”

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte

Josephine de Beauharnais

Josephine de Beauharnais

The factory, although initially in shambles, prospered anew under the directorship of Brongniart. Some of it was due to the demands created by the chaos of the Revolution. For example, many châteaux had been looted; eventually their owners returned and ordered sets of replacement table services. Those new to being in power also ordered sets, as well, as did each of the newly crowned siblings of Napoleon, who were quick to anoint his or her reign with a proper set of porcelain from Sèvres.

Alexandre Brongniart was director of Sevres for 47 years.

Alexandre Brongniart was director of Sevres for 47 years.

During the days of Napoleon’s empire, the pieces produced at Sèvres were often a reflection of current events. For example, the “Egyptian service” celebrated Napoleon’s expedition to the Nile with a blue ground highlighted with gold hieroglyphics. In addition, each successful war campaign resulted in a commission for suites of large commemorative vases. In general, pieces made during the Empire period had more gold ornamentation on a less ornate, neoclassical form.

Brogniart would go on to head the Sèvres factory for 47 years, until his death in 1847. During his tenure as director, the Sèvres factory was able to regain its financial footings and initiated a program of technical and design innovation that ultimately restored its reputation for excellence. Royal patronage continued through to the final Louis … Louis Philippe, who reigned from 1830 to 1848 and the Second Empire of Napoleon III, 1852 to 1870.

Turn of the Century Artists

In the last quarter of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20 century, a number of innovative ceramic artists came to work at Sèvres. Marc Louis Solon was one. While at Sèvres, he learned the techniques of raised slip decoration called pate. He would later go on to leave France and bring the technique to the Minton factory in England. (Frederick Hurton Rhead’s father, Frederick Albert, was trained by Solon. Frederick Hurton Rhead is well known in the United States for his work at several potteries including Weller, Roseville and Arequipa).

Large Antique Figurative Bronze Clock Sevres Porcelain, circa 1870.

A large antique figurative bronze clock with Sevres Porcelain, circa 1870.

This clock features hand-painted Sevres porcelain inserts

This clock features hand-painted Sevres porcelain inserts.

Theodore Deck worked as an art director at Sèvres as did the sculptor, Albert Carrier de Belleuse. It was a very exciting time to be involved in the ceramic arts. France was the host for several major expositions during this time period and each factory did their utmost to outdo the others. Other famous artists that lent their talents to Sèvres factory include Auguste Rodin, Mathurin Meheut and Taxtile Doat.

The Sèvres porcelain factory has undergone several name changes in its more-than-250 years of existence. Today, as La Manufacture National de Sèvres, the factory continues in operation and remains one of the world’s most prestigious sources for elegant porcelain table services.

A monumental pair of porcelain urns measuring 29 inches tall, featuring painted scenes depicting muses on a cobalt blue ground, with the monogram of King Louis Philippe (1773-1850) on the reverse.

A monumental pair of Sevres porcelain urns measuring 29 inches tall, featuring painted scenes depicting muses on a cobalt blue ground, with the monogram of King Louis Philippe (1773-1850) on the reverse.

For ceramics collectors, marks are never the most dependable source of information, but they are particularly unreliable in the case of Sèvres. The various Sèvres marks are considered to be among the most copied marks in the world of antiques. Attributing a piece of porcelain to Sèvres by the marks alone leaves much room for error. More important is the study and knowledge of the chronological order of the factory’s stylistic development and the dates of the use of specific background colors, as well as the names of the painters, the dates they worked, and their individual styles.

The Hillwood Museum—the former home of Post Cereal heiress Marhorie Merriweather Post—near Washington, D.C., has an interesting collection of vintage Sèvres porcelain; some of the pieces dating back to when the factory was in Vincennes. Those interested in learning further about vintage Sèvres porcelain should avail themselves of such collections.

— by Adela Meadows

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