By: Samuel Knowles
Since the mid-18th century, Sèvres has produced porcelain for monarchs, diplomats and private collectors alike. Even as the factory’s wealthy clients were put to the guillotine in the midst of the French Revolution, the National Convention decided that Sèvres must continue to run. “We all know that French history is riddled with changes of regime and political and social turmoil over the centuries,” says Liana Paredes, curator of a new Sèvres exhibition at the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington, D.C. “What were the factors that safeguarded this factory and its production through such a long history?”
To answer her question, Paredes has organized Sèvres Then and Now, Tradition and Innovation in Porcelain, 1750–2000, a nearly 100-piece exhibition that opens on Oct. 20. Unlike previous Sèvres shows in the United States, which focused almost exclusively on 18th-century production, Sèvres Then and Now will prominently display works dating from the 19th century onward. Using vases, plates, photographs and engravings, the show offers a holistic account of the factory’s evolution, which was fueled by artisans’ drive but often shaped by outside forces.
Even though the factory began in 1740 as a private enterprise, King Louis XV became a major shareholder in 1753 and its sole owner in 1759. It was during this period that Sèvres developed the style that would become its hallmark—bright colors set against white spaces reserved for vivid scenery and intricate gilding. However, says Paredes, “there’s not a set look for Sèvres. There’s always a surprise element in the best of the productions.”
Highlights of the exhibition include a 1757 flower vase credited with introducing a new shade of pink into the palette of porcelain makers; a tea and coffee set from 1810–12 decorated with nearly photographic depictions of Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt; and a 1968 “Diane” plate by Russian-born painter Serge Poliakoff, marked by its striking colors and abstract composition.
While Sèvres’ practice of engaging outside artists began in the 1920s, when the furniture and interior designer Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann fashioned several pieces, it gained momentum in the 1950s and ’60s. Artists such as Alexander Calder and Jean Arp helped keep the factory in sync with emerging trends in contemporary art.
Despite changes in ownership and design, Sèvres has maintained many of its original production methods. The French government now subsidizes the factory with official commissions, using the porcelain to adorn its ministries. Only a small portion of the production line is made for purchase; high prices and hand-based techniques limit Sèvres’ commercial scope.
Paredes attributes the factory’s creative success to fidelity to its heritage. “The tradition,” she says, “always informs production, even to this day.”