The Sèvres porcelain factory started out cutting-edge and has stayed that way ever since, creating pieces that turn fantasy into gorgeous reality.
Times were grim for the Sèvres porcelain factory in the 1790s. It was almost offered for sale in 1790, but King Louis XVI opened his own purse to keep its kilns lit. Three years later, the king’s angry subjects sent him to the chopping block, and the Sèvres factory nearly followed. But remarkably, the National Congress voted to spare it. While its legislators were deeply irked by the antics of Sèvres’ high-born patrons, they deemed Sèvres itself “one of the glories of France” and permitted it to carry on making its exquisite luxury goods. The revolutionaries “always understood it was wonderful stuff,” says Leon Dalva of Dalva Brothers, a Manhattan gallery that specializes in Sèvres.
We continue to talk about Sèvres porcelain today, centuries after it first appeared, because it’s still wonderful stuff—gorgeous colors, delightful shapes, expertly made. Pieces that thrilled the crowned heads of Europe in the 18th century turned the heads of Henry Clay Frick and Marjorie Merriweather Post in the 20th. The endurance of Sèvres porcelain may be linked to the reason its founders moved the factory in 1756 from its original location in Vincennes to Sèvres. The new town wasn’t near a deposit of clay or a forest of wood that could fuel the kilns, but it was convenient to Versailles and its deep-pocketed nobles. Placing its headquarters close to its customers rather than sources of raw materials was an inspired choice that planted the seeds that would sprout and grow into the modern French luxury goods market. Periodic exhibition sales of Sèvres’ latest, held within Versailles, became such a tradition that even when the revolutionaries forced the royal family back to Paris, the king was permitted to conduct Sèvres sales at the Tuileries Palace. “Everyone who wanted to be in good favor at court would buy a piece,” says Liana Paredes, director of collections and chief curator of the Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Washington, D.C.
Unlike the German porcelain factory at Meissen, which came into being as a state enterprise, Sèvres launched in 1740 as a private business (King Louis XV did not step in and raise it to a royal endeavor until 1759). The brain trust behind Sèvres knew they had to make their mark swiftly and surely if they wanted to seize part of the porcelain market from Chinese imports and from their German rivals, who were the first Europeans to figure out the formula for porcelain. “They needed to separate themselves from Meissen. They needed to be as competitive and as attractive, and they needed to do something better,” says Charlotte Vignon, curator of decorative arts at the Frick Collection in Manhattan. In its way, launching a porcelain factory in Europe in the mid-18th century was like the U.S. launching the Apollo program in the mid- 20th—it was an agonizingly expensive endeavor that recruited the finest, most talented scientists and technicians available, and it bolstered a country’s reputation as a leader, if not the leader, among nations. “Sèvres very quickly developed a French style,” Vignon says. “They employed Jean-Claude Duplessis, a talented designer who created shapes that did not exist anywhere else. Jean Hellot, their chemist, invented these colors, almost one a year. They had a bright team of very, very interesting people working for them.”
That bright team did something very, very French—they figured out how to transform their shortcomings into high style. During the factory’s early decades, the clay available to Sèvres was only fit for making soft paste porcelain; it lacked the kaolin that was in the clays used at Meissen and in China to create the more desirable hard paste porcelain. Hellot transformed soft paste’s challenges into virtues by concocting formulas for seductively candy-like hues. “It [the color] really sank into the body of the porcelain and acquired a depth and a brightness of color that was unattainable in hard paste,” says Paredes. Duplessis matched Hellot’s eye-popping colors with magnificent and daring shapes to decorate. “I think he was a genius in a way,” says Paredes, commenting on how Duplessis managed a more restrained take on the rococo style that prevailed in the 18th century. “The way he designed was about volume and plasticity and great shapes.” Sèvres’ expert marriage of color and form comes through clearly in a soup tureen and matching platter made at Vincennes in 1754 and now in Hillwood’s collection. “Duplessis was clearly looking at silver tureens,” Paredes says, pointing out the gilt-edged leaves that grace the legs of the Sèvres tureen. Its ground, or main background color, represents one of Sèvres’ inaugural achievements—a lush shade of blue that didn’t emerge from the kiln looking patchy, cloudy, or uneven.
Hillwood has another early Sèvres piece that glories in a technical achievement and shows how adept the factory was at exploiting the zeitgeist for marketing purposes. In 1757, Sèvres sold a cuvette “Mahon,” a type of flower vase that features a previously hard-to-master color: pink. Before Hellot nailed down the formula, the pink tended to drip and run and blend with the gilding on a piece, causing discoloration. To celebrate the triumph of chemistry, the powers at Sèvres named the new shade of pink after one of the factory’s best patrons, Madame du Pompadour. As it happens, she wasn’t a fan of that particular pink, but the name stuck, and she became the first person Sèvres honored by naming a color for them. (A notable exception was the bleu céleste that graces the soup tureen and tray. The moniker given to this debut color achievement of Sèvres translates to “heavenly blue.”) The name “Mahon” alludes to a 1757 French victory over the English for control of the Mediterranean island of Minorca; Mahon was and is its capital city. The new color, the color’s name, and the nod to the island triumph unite in a trifecta of cheerleading for France and the glories of its empire.
The Frick Collection includes many Sèvres pieces that Frick purchased from J. P. Morgan, among them a trio of pots-pourri with a purple ground, created in 1762. They have returned to their normal space in the Frick mansion after a year on display alongside other choice Frick Sèvres pieces in the museum’s Portico Gallery in an exhibition that ended in April. Vignon deems them among the “extraordinary, extremely rare” examples of 18th-century Sèvres that “every collector would die to have.” Frick wouldn’t have filled the pots with fragrant dried plant material, but even as far back as the time of Versailles, Sèvres customers accepted the idea that (tableware excepted) its punishingly expensive porcelain fancies were not to be used, even though they could be. “It served a different function. It served the function of decorating a home, and making a home fashionable,” says Vignon, adding, “It had a huge social function. In the close circle around the king, it [possessing choice Sèvres] showed if you were in or out.” Sèvres performed much the same role in 20th-century America, too; it was the sort of thing that Frick, as a Gilded Age titan, was expected to own, so he acquired it, paying as much or more than a French courtier would have when they were new. In 1916, he spent $100,000 on an exceptional ship-shaped pot pourri and a set of green-ground vases, all made in 1759.
Another reason that we continue to treasure Sèvres is that the factory never fell into the trap of endlessly repeating past triumphs. A stunning vase that it fashioned for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris provides ample proof of its resistance to resting on its laurels. Though it is hard to see from our 21st-century vantage point, this unique swan-decorated porcelain confection was meant to seem futuristic to fair-goers, and it did. M.S. Rau Antiques in New Orleans currently has the vase, and Bill Rau points out that its decorative scheme features “Art Nouveau, which was up and coming, but also parts of Art Deco, which was 20 years off. They’re saying this is the future of art. They’re saying, ‘We want to have the style of the next 100 years.’” In keeping with its 18th-century forbears, the swan vase was a technical marvel, as well, boasting a never-before-seen color palette and standing 45 inches tall. It was the largest single piece of porcelain ever made at the time, and it required Sèvres to build a special oversize kiln to accommodate it. “They were innovative,” says Rau, characterizing their attitude as one that declared, “We’re going to try to make things no one else has made.”
That attitude carried through the 20th century and right up to the present. Another tactic that has helped keep Sèvres fresh and relevant is its practice of inviting top artists and designers to collaborate, a practice that dates back to the factory’s beginnings, when it commissioned drawings from the likes of François Boucher. Auguste Rodin, Roberto Matta, Jean Arp, Alexander Calder, and Yayoi Kusama have all shared their artistic visions with Sèvres, as have designers Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Ettore Sottass. Atelier Courbet in Manhattan, the American representative for Sèvres, currently has works by these last two, including a bracingly spare white Art Deco vase designed by Ruhlmann in 1926 and two colorful vases from Sottsass’ early 1990s series of 14 vases, each of which he named for a famous woman from history. The two Sottass vases Atelier Courbet has, Tseui and Messaline, subtly reflect Sèvres ‘s past while remaining contemporary. Both draw visual strength from large expanses of a single hue, similar to the way that 18th century Sèvres pieces sported a captivating ground color that set off its decorated white-backdrop insets. And both vases were assembled from multiple pieces and invisibly joined with a technique akin to that with which the old Sèvres artisans assembled its biscuit figures. “Sèvres has always represented the height of fashion,” says Samuel Leeds of Atelier Courbet. “They’ve always worked with people who are the tastemakers of their day.”
This long, strong history of hiring the finest, most creative minds to imagine and produce objects that transcend the mundane tasks they were nominally meant to perform has also kept Sèvres relevant over the centuries. Its no-expense-spared porcelain follies fit perfectly in a world where weathervanes are plucked from roofs and hung on walls like paintings, and the toys of children long since grown and gone are restored and placed in carefully lit display niches. “Beautiful things are beautiful things. There are things that just work aesthetically. Sèvres always tried to make phenomenal aesthetic pieces, and I think they succeeded,” Rau says. “Drinking tea might go out of style, but Sèvres never goes out of style.”
By Sheila Gibson Stoodley