Sèvres Porcelain: A Royal Legacy

Sèvres porcelain is one of the most famous and prestigious types of ceramic art in the world. It originated in France in the 18th century and became a symbol of royal and aristocratic taste, as well as a source of national pride and artistic innovation. In this blog post, I will give you a brief overview of the history of Sèvres porcelain, from its humble beginnings to its present-day status.

The Origins of Sèvres Porcelain

The story of Sèvres porcelain begins in 1738, when a group of craftsmen from a nearby porcelain factory at Chantilly founded a new workshop at the Château de Vincennes, near Paris1. They were inspired by the Chinese and Japanese porcelain that was imported to Europe by the Dutch East India Company, and sought to imitate its beauty and quality. However, they faced a major challenge: they did not know the secret of making hard-paste porcelain, which is the true porcelain made from kaolin clay and fired at high temperatures. Instead, they had to use a softer and more fragile material, known as soft-paste porcelain, which was a mixture of glass, clay, and ground bones.

The Vincennes factory soon attracted the attention and patronage of King Louis XV, who became its sole owner in 1759. He moved the factory to a larger site at Sèvres, near his palace of Versailles, and gave it the name of Manufacture Royale de Porcelaine. Under his protection and support, the Sèvres factory flourished and produced some of the finest examples of soft-paste porcelain in Europe. The factory employed talented artists, such as the painter François Boucher and the sculptor Étienne-Maurice Falconet, who designed and decorated the porcelain with exquisite scenes, flowers, birds, and figures. The factory also developed new and vibrant colors, such as rose Pompadour, bleu de roi, and turquoise, which were applied to the porcelain as backgrounds or borders. The Sèvres porcelain was highly sought after by the king, his court, and other European monarchs, who commissioned and collected it as a sign of wealth and prestige.

The Transition to Hard-Paste Porcelain

The Sèvres factory faced a major turning point in 1761, when it acquired the secret of making hard-paste porcelain from a German chemist named Johann Friedrich Böttger, who had discovered it at Meissen in 1708. The hard-paste porcelain was stronger, more durable, and more resistant to heat and acids than the soft-paste porcelain, and it allowed for more refined and delicate shapes and decorations. However, the Sèvres factory still lacked the raw materials to produce it, namely kaolin clay and petuntse stone, which were only found in China and Germany. It was not until 1769 that these materials were discovered in France, at Saint-Yrieix, near Limoges. From then on, the Sèvres factory began to produce both soft-paste and hard-paste porcelain, and distinguished them by using different marks: a double L for the soft-paste and an interlaced L and A for the hard-paste.

The production of hard-paste porcelain at Sèvres coincided with a change in taste and style in the late 18th century, which favored more simplicity and elegance over the lavish and ornate designs of the previous period. The Sèvres factory adapted to this new trend by creating more refined and sober forms and decorations, such as the Etruscan vase, the cornet vase, and the cameo service. The factory also experimented with new techniques, such as the biscuit porcelain, which was unglazed and matte, and the jeweled porcelain, which was embellished with raised dots of enamel and gold. The Sèvres porcelain continued to enjoy the patronage of the French royalty, especially Queen Marie-Antoinette, who ordered several services and vases for her private apartments and gardens.

The Survival and Innovation of Sèvres Porcelain

The Sèvres factory faced a serious crisis during the French Revolution, which abolished the monarchy and confiscated its property. The factory lost its royal protection and funding, as well as many of its clients and workers. It was on the verge of bankruptcy and closure, until it was saved by the appointment of Alexandre Brongniart as its administrator in 1800. Brongniart was a brilliant engineer and scientist, who reorganized and modernized the factory, and improved the quality and variety of its products. He also introduced new styles and themes, such as the Empire, the Restoration, and the Romantic, which reflected the political and cultural changes of the 19th century. He collaborated with famous artists, such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, and Théodore Géricault, who painted or designed some of the porcelain pieces. He also promoted the factory’s reputation and prestige by exhibiting its works at national and international fairs and exhibitions, and by selling them to prominent figures, such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis XVIII, and Charles X.

Brongniart’s legacy was continued by his successors, who maintained the high standards and innovation of the Sèvres factory throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The factory experimented with new forms and techniques, such as the pâte-sur-pâte, the crystalline glaze, and the cameo glass. It also embraced new movements and influences, such as the Art Nouveau, the Art Deco, and the Orientalism. The factory also continued to attract and employ some of the best artists of their time, such as Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, and Marc Chagall, who created original and unique works of art in porcelain. The Sèvres factory also became a national institution, which was dedicated to preserving and promoting the heritage and excellence of French ceramic art. It established a museum, a library, and a school, which are still active today.

The Conclusion

Sèvres porcelain is a remarkable example of artistic achievement and innovation, which spans over three centuries and reflects the history and culture of France and Europe. It is admired and valued by collectors and connoisseurs all over the world, who appreciate its beauty, quality, and diversity. It is also a living and evolving art form, which continues to produce new and original works, thanks to the talent and creativity of its artists and craftsmen. Sèvres porcelain is a royal legacy, which has become a national treasure and a universal delight.

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