|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
SEVRES CHINA - 1756 TO DATE
HISTORY. The first chapter of the history of Sevres is the history of Vincennes, which we have already traversed in detail. One of the shareholders of the factory of Vincennes, realising full well the more or less precarious financial condition of the establishment, endeavoured to interest Madame de Pompadour in its affairs, hoping that her intervention might be instrumental in placing everything on a firm footing.
Madame de Pompadour, who was a person of great good taste and felt a deep concern in everything connected with the welfare of art in France, promptly took the matter up and straightway proceeded to fasten the King's interest more securely and directly on the development of the royal porcelain manufactory. A piece of ground was selected at Sevres, and, to make a long story short, in due time the necessary buildings were erected and the Vincennes establishment with its whole personnel transferred there.
The trying experimental stages attending the early years of any enterprise had all been passed through. Sevres began with an already complete background of ripe experience and established tradition and, so far as processes were concerned, there was an absolutely clear path ahead to spring full-grown into fame and the glories of superlative achievement. There were defects in the organisation and management of the factory, it is true, and these were serious enough to have landed an establishment without royal support in total bankruptcy, but the King's interest and pocket, both manipulated by Madame de Pompadour, bridged over the difficulties and made it possible to produce china of unparallelled excellence and beauty.
Madame de Pompadour manifested no less solicitude about the design and quality of the factory's products than she did over the ways and means of maintenance.
"Madame de Pompadour talks about nothing but the great advantage that the State will derive from the manufacture of porcelain in the Saxon fashion, and even in having excelled the Saxons in it. A royal shop for the sale of this porcelain is opened in the rue de la Monnaie, and there is exhibited a service which the King is going to send to the King of Saxony as if he wanted to bid him defiance, and provoke him by shewing him that he had even excelled his porcelain manufacture. At one of the King's suppers the Marquise de Pompadour said that those who did not buy as much of this porcelain as they could afford were not good citizens, to which someone answered that, `Since the King had bestowed so many donations in the encouragement of this manufactory, those at Charleville and at St. Etienne for the manufacture of weapons, useful to us in another way, are neglected, and three-quarters of the work-people go over to foreign countries."
Financial difficulties, however, continued. Most people found the ware too expensive, especially as they could buy Dresden porcelain and Oriental china at a much lower figure. At last, in November 1759, in order to save the situation, the King undertook the whole monetary responsibility of the works, an edict was issued ordering the factory to be administered for His Majesty, and the shareholders were paid off with interest-bearing notes, properly secured. Thus did the factory of Sevres become crown property.
At the instance of M. Boileau, who had grown up with the business management of Vincennes and had contrived to make himself absolutely indispensable, the Lieutenant-General of Police put forth an edict forbidding all persons to make, model, paint or gild porcelain, or to sell the same, under the severest penalties. This edict likewise forbade manufacturers of so-called common porcelains, who had hitherto enjoyed certain privileges, to use gilding, to make figures, flowers, or other modelled pieces except as embellishments for their own wares, or to employ any colour other than blue, applied after the customary Chinese patterns, for decorating their products.
This, of course, called forth a stormy outburst of indignation and protest. Factories like Mennecy and Chantilly enjoyed the patronage of powerful nobles whom the King did not wish to offend and, furthermore, he saw the unwisdom of ruining a number of factories and causing needless unemployment. Accordingly, by another decree, set forth in February 1766, the making of porcelain in imitation of the Chinese was permitted, but the managers of the factories were straitly charged in the decoration of their china to use no colour other than blue, except they chose to paint a piece wholly with some other single color en camaieu. They were likewise forbidden to use gold, or to make statuettes or ornaments in high relief out of porcelain, either glazed or unglazed. These monopolistic restrictions explain why Chantilly and Mennecy china of a certain period was decorated either in blue, or in some other color en camatieu, and without the grace of gilding.
In spite of these drastic measures that crippled the liberty of other factories, Sevres still laboured under money troubles and the King was ultimately obliged to meet deficits from his privy-purse. If some of the energies and talent had been turned to making more china for the average market, instead of concentrating almost all efforts on magnificent regal productions, there would have been more substantial profit and less anxiety. Nor need artistic excellence have suffered in the least. Chantilly and Mennecy, to mention no others, produced beautiful chinaware of a quality and price not prohibitive to the purse of those who could afford reasonable luxury. And they found profit in doing so.
As it was, the management of Sevres, inspired by extravagant notions of splendid ostentation, pinned their faith mostly on effulgent chefs d'ceuvres, cabinet pieces marvellous to behold, but quite beyond ordinary reach. "Most of the pieces appear to have been intended for the King's service, for the furnishing of the royal palaces of Versailles, the Trianon, Marly, Bellevue, Meudon, St. Germain, and Fontainebleau. He used them as presents for his relatives, his friends, his courtiers and his ambassadors. They were also made use of as diplomatic presents, sometimes, perhaps, as diplomatic bribes." Naturally, when the commercial considerations were either wholly eliminated or else so minimised that they counted for naught in the grand total, it required a kingly purse to meet the costs of production, and even the kingly purse was not always adequate to the demands without a good deal of pinching and paring. When the royal purse was utterly depleted and Louis XV, like his predecessor, had to send all his silver to the mint, then Sevres made wares for popular consumption and prospered.
The early sumptuous period of Sevres soft paste porcelain lasted from 1756 to 1769. In the latter year began the manufacture of hard paste porcelain conjointly with the soft paste. A great quantity of the seems, of equally magnifical price. To encourage the artists esponsible for the designs and decoration, and also to help the sales, the King had exhibitions of porcelain every year in the Palace at Versailles. These he not only attended in person, but he actually played the part of shewman and salesman. A contemporary source gives us a lively picture of these occasions:
"Every New Year's Day they bring into the galleries at Versailles the newest and choicest pieces of Sevres porcelain, which the King himself distributes among his great lords for their money; he fixes the prices himself and they are not cheap. We presume that the price must be pretty high on account of the financial situation, but we shall speak about that later on. It is certain that some of the noble lords are not ashamed of taking a cup, or some little ornament, when they think they are not observed. Seeing a count take a cup in this way, Louis XV sent to him next morning the cashier from Sevres with the saucer that he had been unable to take, and a bill for the pieces. One day the King saw that an abbe refused to purchase a piece on account of its price, but in order to persuade him the King immediately promised him a benefice."
In time the wealthier public gradually became educated up to the price of the wares of Sevres and collectors bought the choice vases, flower-pots and figures, both glazed and in the biscuit, on the production of which the ablest sculptors, painters and modellers of the day had spent their best efforts, but popular requirements were still too little considered, and the factory was usually run at a loss or now and then barely managed to pay expenses. These latter occasions were of rare occurrence.
When Louis XVI succeeded to the throne, royal interest in the factory was continued unabated, both on the part of the King himself, who took deep pride in the Sevres achievements, and also on the part of the Queen, for Marie Antoinette dearly loved the graces which the painters, the sculptors and the modellers so beguilingly expressed, and often visited the works. The story is told that one day the Queen, on looking at a quantity of recently decorated porcelain, deplored the fact that she saw abundance of roses, tulips, daffodils and other flowers of all colors save blue, a color to which she was very partial. Hettlinger, one of the directors, at once thought of using the cornflower as a decoration to please the Queen, and thence forth it became vastly popular as a motif, not only at Sevres but at all the other porcelain factories as well.
The King's enthusiasm was very obviously attested both by his continuance of the annual exhibitions in the Palace at Versailles and by the active part he took in the reparations for them, on which occasions he was sometimes more of an hindrance than an help, as we may gather from a letter written by Hettlinger:
I have already said that an exhibition A porceUms takes place at the end of every year up to the day of the `Three Magi.' It is held at the Royal Palace, but the public are allowed to come and examine and buy the pieces. The King occupies in Versailles, besides the State rooms, the Petits appartements, where he passes his private life. Three of these rooms are cleared of their furniture, and the porcelain pieces are exhibited on tables. This year he did not wait until the arrival of work people, but must himself be unpacking the pieces, breaking not a few, and mixing everything up so that it took us hours to put it straight. The King delights in his manufactory at Sevres, and he said to one of his confidants, `Our brave Sevres men will soon be here. I must make haste to shoot some game."
But royal interest in the prettinesses of the work did not help matters much, and certainly did not assist the financial management. Fifteen years before Louis XVI succeeded to the throne, the materials requisite for making hard paste porcelain had been found in France, endless experiments had been carried out, and a number of hard paste porcelain factories had sprung up in various parts of the kingdom, although hard paste was not made at Sevres until some years after the native materials had become available.
These recently established hard paste porcelain works were forging steadily ahead and were seriously affecting the market of Sevres. Although there were still in effect the restrictive edicts that gave Sevres a virtual monopoly of fine porcelain making in France, and clipped the wings of private enterprise, those edicts were not rigorously enforced. There was laxity on the part of government officials, there were evasions on the part of the newly arisen factories and, what was most significant of all, some of the greatest nobles of the realm and, indeed, members of the royal family had lent their names and active patronage to divers of these independent ventures even when they were not financially interested in their success, as they were in more than one instance.
Things gradually went from bad to worse in the business affairs of Sevres, until at last the King was obliged to retrench and greatly curtail the staff which, of course, only made the position of the independent factories stronger. Even under these disadvantageous conditions, marvellous work was performed in the royal factory and triumphs of porcelain design and decoration were pro duced right up to the very eve of the Revolution.
During the Revolution the factory was in sorry plight and so were the workers, but under the Napoleonic regime order was restored and the establishment was again put on its feet, for Napoleon saw in it a means of contributing to the splendour and outward display of pomp about which he was so solicitous and which he knew how to use to such good purpose. In this era much magnificent but over-elaborate porcelain was produced. The great physicist Brongniart became director and bent his energies to perfecting the hard paste body. It was at this time, in the early years of the nineteenth century, that the making of the beautiful soft paste porcelain at Sevres was definitely abandoned.
The factory of Sevres has grown into a great national institution and has rendered invaluable services to the porcelain art, but as this volume is not concerned with the essentially modern developments of chinaware, we shall :eave it at this point, merely adding that in the museum at Sevres are admirable and comprehensive collections of china which it is well worth while for any china-lover to inspect.
THE BODY. In the section on Vincennes china the early story of the soft paste body was told. After the factory of Vincennes was removed to become the founda tion of the Sevres factory, the chemical staff of Sevres were constantly conducting experiments, and whenever there was a chance to effect an improvement, the improvement was straightway made, until the paste was brought to absolute perfection-pure milky white, hard, and translucent.
This perfect body, with its tender translucence, continued to be used without a competitor for favour until t'J6q, when hard paste was added to the list of products. Oftentimes the walls of the soft paste pieces were thinner at Sevres than they had been made at Vincennes; this increased their translucence and also their fragility. The soft paste in the biscuit pieces sometimes shews a very pale amber tinge, which adds a warm glow and mellowness to the general aspect.
The hard paste produced underwent the same constant and rigid scrutiny as the soft paste had undergone at an earlier date, and the same revision of formulas for its composition. It was the tendency of the chemists in charge to aim at technical perfection rather than sympathetic quality, beauty, or adaptability for decoration. The soft paste was the most perfect vehicle ever achieved for decorating, far more so than the hard paste. But much was sacrificed in the endeavour to reach technical perfection in the hard paste, and there was a tendency to make it too "severe"-cold, hard, metallic and glittering in quality.
Brongniart, who abandoned the manufacture of soft paste porcelain, bent his efforts toward making the hard paste conform absolutely with the hardest type of Chinese porcelain. Under Brongniart the hard paste was made harder than previously, and the type he introduced is still employed for table services. It was not until late in the nineteenth century that this attitude was at all modified. The Sevres hard paste body is absolutely white, hard, translucent and resonant and needless to say, flawless.
THE GLAZE. The glaze used at Vincennes had been brought to perfection before the removal to Sevres. It had a lustrous, luscious richness, and at Sevres it was maintained at its highest state of clarity, colourless transparency, glassy smoothness, and evenness of distribution.
The glaze used on the first hard paste porcelain made at Sevres, and continued down to i8oo, was calcareous,that is, it had chalk or lime in its composition, and was much less glossy than the glaze of the soft paste porcelain. As a matter of fact, it was relatively opaque, and hence the early hard paste exhibits a pearly whiteness. This early glaze was an especially kindly medium for colours and for enamels in relief. Brongniart changed this glaze for one made from the natural pegmatite of St. Yrieix, near Limoges, and it is this later glaze that so often seems glittering and unsympathetic.
ARTICLES MADE AND CONTOUR. Apart from the objects de luxe, the "shew pieces," to which reference has already been made, the modelled flowers, the splendid vases and other ornaments intended for the King's service or to be given as presents to foreign monarchs and ambassadors, the wares made at Sevres number dinner-services of both simple pattern and the more elaborate designs of Duplessis, trays, sugar-bowls, inkstands, jardinieres, tea, coffee and chocolate services, milk jugs, table garnitures, sconces, candlesticks, basons and ewers, tobacco and snuff-boxes, patch boxes, covered jars, watch cases, buttons, cane-heads, thimbles, perfume and pomatum pots, needle-cases, bonbonnieres, bowls, pot-pourri jars, gravyboats and sauce-boats, vases of a dozen different styles, fruit baskets, dessert services, clock cases, cups and saucers, plaques or panels for furniture-these in the reign of Louis XVI-small flower jars, and jewel caskets. Besides these there were the portrait medallions, busts, groups, and figures of biscuit porcelain modelled by the most eminent sculptors.
As previously pointed out, the contours followed at Sevres were distinctly French. It is the nature of the French genius, even when a model is admittedly drawn from some foreign source, so to assimilate and adapt it and endow it with new individuality that it wholly ceases to be what it was and becomes a new thing instinct with Gallic character. Whatever inspiration in contour was derived from Oriental sources was so reshaped in the hands of the Sevres designers that it became French in the transmutation.
During the reign of Louis XV the contours of Sevres porcelain were a faithful index to the prevalent trend and spirit of contemporary design as we see it reflected in architecture, furniture and painting. Subtle shapings and curves were the order of the day, and we find these elements accommodated to chinaware, as well as everywhere else. Long before Louis XVI came to the throne, however, a change of taste had set in and superseded the well recognised Rococo manner that we particularly associate with the reign of Louis XV.A strong tendency toward greater purity and simplicity of line was unmistakable. The chinaware of Sevres promptly registered all the changes of style from the exuberant fancies of the Rococo mode to the more austere forms of Neo-Classic provenance. Without loss of grace, the many playful curves and subtle shapings gave place to straight lines or restrained flaring contours . When the Directoire and First Empire came, the urbanity and suave but cheerful dignity of NeoClassic contours yielded, in turn, to the aggressive and insistent severity of robust Neo-Grec forms, inspired by newly-quickened archaeological enthusiasms. In short, whatever was the dominant attitude in the minds of Frenchmen toward matters of style and design, that attitude was straightway mirrored in the products of Sevres whose design was a peculiarly sensitive index to every slightest variation of national taste.
TYPES OF DECORATION. The types of decoration that characterised the porcelain of Sevres, not withstandtheir manifold variety, reflected the procession of style influences just as surely and accurately as did the contours. We find the Rococo manner, at its best, exemplified from about 1756 to 1769. Before this, however, there were indications of the coming change, and during the reign of Louis XVI the spirit of the decorations manifested in altogether new aspect. Delicacy, elegance and restraint succeeded to exuberant and playful fancy, to be in turn ousted by the incisive severity of the Directoire mode which was soon to be followed by the ostentatious pomp and circumstance of the Empire fashion. All of these epochs had their own well defined preferences in both coloring and the character of decorative motifs, and these preferences were interpreted in the china of Sevres no less than in every other visible manifestation of decorative art.
It must be remembered that Sevres had fallen heir to all the decorative developments of Vincennes and had only to go on amplifying and adding to the stock of thoroughly organised tradition acquired by inheritance at the outset. There were, to begin with, the various types of flower and bird painting followed by the Vincennes decorators and there were the wonderful ground colours that the Vincennes chemists had already devised. To these colours, in 1757, was added the beautiful rose Pompadour, popularly and wrongly called rose du Barry.
The development of the Sevres style of decoration was the natural outgrowth of the methods in vogue at the Vincennes factory. There was no break in the tradition.It was a continuous progression, to a large measure in the hands of the same men. The chief difference to be noted, so far as the early work of Sevres is concerned, is that the decorations in many instances gradually became richer and more sumptuous than those customarily employed at Vincennes and new colors and gradations of colour were added.
The bleu du roi, as previously mentioned, was too intense and vibrant to use in large masses alone and was ordinarily modified by fine gilded reticulations in a regu lar pattern, by vermiform gold lines, by the "partridge eye" motif, or by a circular diaper in gold. Besides the bleu du roi, the Sevres blue and turquoise blue as ground colors, there were rose Pompadour (just mentioned), apple-green, grass-green, lilac, daffodil yellow, claret colour, a pale canary yellow which was developed at a rather late date, brown tortoise shell and green tortoise shell grounds, and the underglaze chrome green, which last was developed during the Empire and, although striking, cannot be considered beautiful or in any way worthy to be compared with the earlier grounds.
The panels reserved on the white ground of the porcelain, in conjunction with these ground colors, were surrounded and defined with gilded or colored scrolls or bands of ribbon. In the case of one jardiniere, now preserved in the Wallace Collection, with a ground color of rose Pompadour, the oval reserved panel is surrounded with a broad green ribbon touched with gold. On these reserved panels were customarily painted with the utmost delicacy woodland scenes, pastorals, groups of figures, harbour scenes, military subjects, scenes of society, gallantry or love, and a diversity of mythological subjects, or else they were decorated with flowers in polychrome or birds of gorgeous plumage. Although subjects of this sort had been marvellously well executed at Vincennes, at Sevres there was a marked increase in the delicacy and refinement of presentation. This is not to be wondered at when a number of the ablest artists of the time were constantly employed, such men as Le Guay, Lecot, Dodin, Armand, Aubert, Bouillat, Merault, Sioux, Chabry, Pithou, Bouchet and Rosset, to name only a few of them.
The modellers and sculptors were no less distinguished in their profession. There were Duplessis, Falconet, Bachelier, Le Riche, Perrotin and Levaux, while in model ling the originals for the biscuit portrait busts and groups there were such men as Pigalle, Clodion, Caffieri, Boizot, julien and, above all, Pajou. Many more names of painters, sculptors and modellers might be added to the 'ist, did space permit, but if anyone wishes to pursue the details further on this score a complete roll may be found in the bulletins of the Sevres museum.