Sevres porcelain resists easily categorisation. The vast and diverse production of the Sevres factory during the 19th century reflects the ever-changing fashions of the period. Between 1800 and 1900, however, despite fluctuating fashions and political turbulence, Sevres managed to remain at the forefront of European pottery manufacture, turning out a range of spectacular and unparalleled designs.
The factory, which had been founded in the town of Vincennes (now a suburb of Paris) in 1740, and then reestablished in larger quarters at Sèvres in 1756, became the preeminent porcelain manufacturer in Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century.
Louis XV had been an early investor in the fledgling ceramic enterprise and became its sole owner in 1759. However, due to the upheavals of the French Revolution, its financial position at the beginning of the nineteenth century was extremely precarious. No longer a royal enterprise, the factory also had lost much of its clientele, and its funding reflected the ruinous state of the French economy.
In 1800, Alexandre Brongniart (1770-1847) was appointed to the role of administrator. His appointment marked a change in the factory’s flailing fortunes. Trained as both an engineer and a scientist, Brongniart was both brilliant and immensely capable, and he brought all of his prodigious talents to the running of the troubled porcelain factory. He directed the Sèvres factory as administrator until his death in 1847, and during those five decades influenced every aspect of its organization and production.
Immediately, Brogniart sold off Sevres’ old, undecorated stock. He filled the factory with new forms in its place – largely in the then-fashionable, though some might say severe, Neoclassical style. The formula used to make the porcelain was also improved and new colours devised. Brongniart also oversaw the development of a new type of kiln that was both more efficient and cost-effective.
Much of the factory's output during Brongniart's first decade reflected the prevailing Empire taste, which favoured extensive gilding, rich border designs, and elaborate figural scenes. Backgrounds simulating marble or a variety of hardstones were employed with greater frequency. The new range of enamel colours which were developed under Brongniart made it easier to achieve these imitation surfaces, and it is thought that his interest in mineralogy provided the impetus for this type of decoration.
Brongniart oversaw the introduction of schemed sets. The individual articles which come together to make a dinner or coffee set were unified decoratively as well as stylistically. Dinner services were given coherence by the use of an overall theme, in addition to shared border patterns and ground colours.
One of the best examples of this can be found in the "Service des Départements," which was conceived by Brongniart in 1824. Each of the plates in the service was decorated with a famous topographical view of the department (administrative unit) of France that it represented, and its border was painted with small cameo portraits of figures from the region, as well as symbols of the major arts, industries, and products of the area.
Sevres produced an extraordinary range of wares throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. A recent exhibition catalogue devoted to Brogniart’s influence at Sevres listed over 92 new vase forms and 89 individual cup forms. The factory also produced water jugs, toiletry items and other functional objects. During this period, a new form rarely replaced an older one; the range of production simply increased.
The same was true of decoration, as the factory was working in a wide variety of styles at any given time.
From the earliest years of the Sèvres factory, its painters had copied not only contemporary compositions but also prints and paintings from earlier periods. However, under Brongniart, the factory sought to copy famous paintings with the specific intention of recording the "true" appearance of works increasingly perceived to be fragile. Works by a wide variety of artists were copied, but those by Raphael were especially popular.
Just as works by earlier artists were copied, traditional decorative techniques were also aped at Sevres.
Interest in the Gothic style emerged early in Brongniart's tenure at Sèvres and remained popular for much of the nineteenth century.
Strict adherence to Gothic motifs was rarely observed, however, and the Gothic style was more evoked than faithfully copied.
The eclecticism and historicism that characterized so much of the production during Brongniart's tenure continued after his death in 1847. The factory's output reflected an ongoing desire for technical innovation as well as a wide embrace of diverse decorative styles that were employed simultaneously.
Perhaps the only thread that can be said to run through much Sèvres production of the nineteenth century is the proclivity to borrow freely from various historical styles and then to either reinterpret these styles or combine them in unprecedented ways.
Familiarise yourself with the various marks and backstamps used on Sevres porcelain pieces. As with the vast majority of porcelain, these marks differ depending on the year the piece was created.
A standard Sevres mark is crisscrossing lines with a lowercase "a" or "c" inside. The piece may also have an uppercase "E," "L," or "AA" inside the piece, which indicates when it was made.
Look out for pieces that are marked "Manufacturer Royale Du Porcelain" rather than "Sevres." These pieces date back to the 1700s when the King of France was a major shareholder in the company and changed how the pieces were signed and manufactured, which makes the pieces more rare and valuable.
It can be useful to decide on the type of Sevres porcelain you want to collect. The company made a number of different pieces including candlesticks, vases, basins, clocks, jugs, tea and dinner services and highly decorated pots. You may find that you prefer collecting Sevres candlesticks or basins rather than collecting everything from the company.
You might want to identify the colour of Sevres porcelain that you prefer for your collection. The company tended to use bright, dramatic colours: dark red, gold, and black were popular, however so were paler colours such as yellow, teal, mint and pale pink.
You may also wish to choose between hard paste porcelain and soft paste porcelain. The soft paste pieces created by Sevres are much rarer because they cost more to produce and they sold for higher prices. The company made only a limited number of these pieces and they typically sold to royalty and well-to-do people.
Consider reading books on Sevres such as "Vincennes and Sevres Porcelain" by Adrian Sassoon. This book was created in cooperation with the J. Getty Museum, which has many of the pieces on display. It includes full-color pictures of Sevres porcelain, including different types and styles, and information on the company itself.
Sevres porcelain is expensive to collect - there are a large number of pieces currently sitting in museums and private collections.
Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (artistic director)
Théophile Fragonard (1806–1876)
A pair of monumental late 19th century Sevres urns sold for $170,750 at Sotheby’s in June 2001.
A pair of mounted Sevres candelabra sold for $81,250 at Sotheby’s in June 2001.
5 Sevres dessert plates sold for $41,852 at Sotheby’s in October 2002.
Six Sevres green-ground plates, circa 1763 sold for £29,250 at Sotheby’s in June 2001.
A single Sevres cup and saucer sold for $20,000 at Don Presley Auctions in December 2012.
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