Sèvres porcelain, the grandest of ultimate luxury, artistic ceramics, was favored by European royalty, the aristocracy of the 19th century, and 20th century great collectors. Its story begins in 1708, when, following frenzied experimentation, German alchemist Johann Bottger discovered the formula for strong, delicate, translucent hard-paste porcelain. Unlike imported white ‘chinaware,’ Bottger’s porcelain could also be painted and gilded. Soon potteries across Europe were producing decorative items a-swirl with fashionable gilt and flowers.
|Pair of 19th century French Napoleonic Painted Gilt Bronze Mounted Sevres-Style Porcelain Lidded Vases.|
Photo courtesy Artes Antiques and Fine Art Gallery.
French potters lacked an ample source of kaolin, a requisite for hard-paste porcelain, however. So from clay and powdered glass, they developed a soft-paste formula.
Soft-paste, though more fragile, could be fired at a lower temperature than hard-paste. This allowed a wider variety of colors and glazes.
The Sèvres porcelain factory was originally founded at Chateau de Vincennes in 1738. Its soft-paste porcelain was prized for its characteristic whiteness and purity. By the time this workshop relocated to Sèvres in 1756, its craftsmen were creating small porcelain birds, figurals of children in white or delicate hues, and innovative pieces with characteristic rosy-hued backgrounds. They also produced detailed allegorical and thematic pieces like Flute Lesson, Jealousy, and Justice and the Republic, which sparkle with transparent, colorless glazes.
The introduction of unglazed, natural-toned “biscuit” porcelain, a favourite of Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV, followed. Many of these molded sculptures portray life-like sentimental or Classical scenes. Biscuit porcelain is extremely fragile.
Madame de Pompadour also adored Sèvres’ porcelain flowers, the most delicate item produced during these early years. Legend has it that, to further their production, she once presented Louis XV with a profusion of Sèvres vases abloom with colorful porcelain pretties, petal upon tinted petal atop cunningly wired “stems.”
When Louis XV assumed full control of Sèvres porcelain in 1759, he insisted on flawless, extravagant creations, many of which he commissioned for his personal collection. In his travels, he also spread the Sèvres reputation for opulent ornamentation, vivid colors, and fine glazes.
The renown Sèvres Mark, blue, elaborate interlaced “L”s, was born of his royal patronage, and helps determine dates of production. Other marks, either painted or incised, indicate specific Sevres painters, gilders, sculptors, and potters by name.
Louis XV’s successor, Louis XVI, continued to support the royal Sèvres tradition. He not only set prices and arranged exhibitions, but also marketed pieces personally.
Although kaolin deposits were discovered near Limoges in 1768, Sèvres began producing hard-paste porcelain commercially only from 1773. During this period, they continued to produce soft-paste items as well.
After suffering financial ruin during the French Revolution, Sèvres, in addition to creating traditional pieces for the luxury market, began producing simpler, less expensive items. During this period, its craftsmen also abandoned their old-fashioned soft-paste formula for hard-paste porcelain.
Sèvres porcelain regained its former glory under Napoleon Bonaparte, who assumed power in 1804. He promoted elaborately ornamented pieces in the classical style. The Empire’s richly decorated, themed dinner sets, for example, were enjoyed by distinguished guests, visiting rulers, and Napoleon himself. These pieces typically feature florals, landscapes, or cameo portraits, framed by solid gold edging accented with stylized palm fronds, the ancient Greek symbol of victory.
Along with dinner sets, and coffee services, tea services were among Sèvres’ most popular creations. During the early 1800s, when passion for that luxury potion peaked, Greek or Etruscan pottery inspired the design of many a Sèvres tea pot. These were valued not only for their beauty, but also because, as porcelain, they could withstand the heat.
Many Sèvres shapes, which range from simple cylindrical vases to elaborate perforated potpourri jars, were innovative for their times. Some, like a gondola-shaped vase designed to hold aromatic petals or another with elephant-head handles fitted as candle arms, serve a double purpose. Sèvres also created a wide selection of decorative utilitarian objects, including tobacco jars, lidded ewer-and-basins, painted plaques, punch bowls, sorbet coolers, and milk jugs.
The range of Sèvres creations is extensive, varying in shape, historical styles, motifs, and ornamentation. Vases typically feature double round, oval, or elliptical finely painted scenes edged in white, against pastel backgrounds. One side portrays figures, while the other features flower bouquets. Their lavish gilding, a royal touch reserved especially for Sèvres creations, is often embellished with engraved detail, like flowers or geometric motifs. Many fine pieces like these, if rarely or never used, are still found in pristine condition.
Simple plates and tea wares can be found for a few hundred dollars. Quite a few Sèvres biscuit porcelains, because large numbers were made to accompany dessert services, have also survived. These fragile pieces command between $3,000 to as much as $70,000 apiece.
According to Errol Manners, author, lecturer, and proprietor of London’s H & E Manners: Ceramics and Works of Art, “the Sèvres market has strengthened considerably in recent years. “Pieces linked directly to the Court and very early experimental wares, which appeal to more serious and academic collectors, command the highest prices of all,” he explains. “Major pieces can command a few hundred thousand dollars. A set of Sèvres vases can command over a million dollars.”
Manners recommends that would-be collectors, before purchasing a Sèvres, visit museums and consult serious dealers and collectors. “And read the books,” he adds. “There are really no short cuts. It takes serious study.” Collecting Sèvres porcelain is, in his experience, “a minefield for the unwary, since many fakes and pastiches– showy, decorative ‘Sèvres-style’ imitations– abound. These were produced during the 19th century in the style of the 18th century—but not by Sèvres.”
“Yet,” counters Edan Sassoon, representing the Artes Antiques and Fine Art Gallery in Beverly Hills, Calif., “while Sèvres-style pieces are not authentic Sèvres, they may be authentic antiques. If they faithfully imitate Sèvres pieces in quality, style, and opulence, they may not only have decorative value, but may also be quite expensive. In today’s market,” he explains, “a piece of Sèvres-style porcelain, depending on its color, condition, size, and quality, may command hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
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