28 August 2012

Sèvres, Napoleon and passion

The association between French royalty and luxury porcelain manufact­urers started long before the rise and rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821). As early as 1740, the Vincennes manufactory was created with the backing of King Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. Then in 1756 the Vincennes factory moved to Sèvres, perhaps to be close to Madame de Pompadour's main residence. It was this new factory that was formally given a royal warrant of appointment in 1759.

All of the artistic directors of the Vincennes-Sevres porcelain seemed to be both artistically creative and commercially successful. But in time, British porcelain was so skilled and attractive that special protective barriers had to be raised, to protect against British imports and to protect French workers against British embargoes.  And not just porcelain. French industries were supported by a system of government foundations, such as the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry 1801. Factories creating luxury goods, including textiles, goldware, clocks etc did very well out of the system.

Sevres, Emperor in Coronation Robes vase, 1812. 
55 cm high, 
Fondation Napoléon, Paris

The Consulate and Empire era (1799-1815) was a time of renewal for the porcelain, textile and metalwork industries, which had suffered greatly under the Revolution. Luxury once was again welcome­d; in fact silks and velvets became mandatory for courtiers. Napoleon commissioned entirely new interiors to stamp his character on the many Imperial palaces and to create work for France’s luxury industries.

The Napoleon: Revolution to Empire Exhibition in Melbourne is displaying the most beautiful and luxurious arts objects at the NGV this winter, each one carrying the imprimatur of Napoleon or Josephine. An Egyptian tea service, decorated with gilt hieroglyphs and views of Egypt, was exquisite. As the exhibition catalogue explains (pp94-7), Vivant Denon was the first scholar to see the wonders of Karnak, Dendera and Upper Egypt, and to reveal them to his colleagues in the Commission of the Sciences and Arts. Back in France, Denon helped create a passion for Egyptian design that mesmerised Consular and Imperial French society. Under the Empire, the Manufacture Imperiale de Sevres produced 8 complete tea services ornamented with paintings based on Vivant Denon’s original art.

I must say that although the porcelain was exquisitely made and painted, David Marshall is correct. In the Empire, the display of dinnerware reached an extreme of exclusivity that exceeded even that of the despised Ancien Régime. When my grandchildren asked how the dishes were washed in the kitchen sink, we knew that the Haves and Have-Nots in French society must have been even more apart than ever.

The most beautiful porcelain piece was a spindle-shaped vase from 1812 called The Emperor in Coronation Robes. Napoleon wasn’t the first ruler in history to glorify himself by disseminating his portrait and emblems; he just did it more often and more lushly than many other rulers. The original 1805 coronation painting had been created by Francois Gerard, official portraitist to Napoleon. This particular portrait was used as a model for works made by the Imperial Manufactories such as Gobelins tapestries and, as we can see, Sevres porcelain. Finely decorated, tall  and finished with gilt bronze bases and handles, these spindle-shaped vases were given as gifts by the Emp­er­or and Empress, but only to the most important politicians and courtiers.

part of Sèvres Imperial Hunting tea service, 1812. 
Fondation Napoléon, Paris

Visitors to the gallery should see the Sèvres Imperial Hunting tea service 1812, commissioned by Napoleon as a gift his second wife Empress Marie-Louise, or for the Comtesse de Croix, Marie-Louise's lady in waiting. The porcelain and silver gilt cups, saucers and pots each have an individual hunting scene, painted by Jean Francois Robert. Each object slotted into a Morocco leather box, presumably so servants could carry the porcelain wherever the courtiers wanted to picnic.

The exhibition Napoleon: Revolution to Empire is on at the National Gallery of Victoria from June until 7th Oct 2012.

Matthew Martin (Gallery Magazine Sept 2012) noted that Vivant Denon's drawings of Egyptian antiquities were published, after the French campaign in Egypt. The art and architecture of ancient Egypt then had a significant impact on Consular and Empire design. The Sevres porcelain factory, for example, drew on Denon's drawings to produce some of its most original productions, often including fanciful hieroglyphs and panoramic views of Egypt.

Napoleon wasn't the only connoisseur collecting majestic French porcelain. Treasure Hunt told of William Bankes, who inherited the Kingston Lacy estates in Dorset in 1806. He soon travelled all around the Mediterranean, collecting works of art along the way. Included in Bankes' collection is a pair of flared Egyptian Revival porcelain stands from Paris, complete with standing caryatids and hieroglyphs c1805. The stands by Lefebre and Caron can still be admired at Kingston Lacy today.


Parnassus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Parnassus said...

I love that Napoleonic era bout of Egyptomania. The quality is of the high standard for French luxury products, but the interpretations and copies of Egyptian art and hieroglyphics can be charmingly naive. I'll have to check for articles or catalogs of this exhibit.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


The quality of the porcelain and the art work is magnificent, but the Frenchmen's interpretations of Egypt and hieroglyphics certainly can be charmingly naive.

The breathtaking catalogue is called Napoleon: Revolution to Empire, curated by Ted Gott and Karine Huguenaud and published by the National Gallery of Victoria. It isn't cheap.

Raisa @ Endless Wardrobe said...

That is just stunning, and their designs are very unique. Like this post so much!

Visit the fashion blog here: http://endlesswardrobe.com.au/blog/

Hels said...


I do too :) The porcelain looks beautiful in the post, but more delicate made and finely painted in real life. If you are anywhere near the Napoleon: Revolution to Empire Exhibition, I warmly recommend it.

Ann Elizabeth said...

The wooden tables are very beautiful.These are very different.We want more furnitures from your post.Thank you.

kredyt konsolidacyjny

Hels said...

Ann Elizabeth

I am assuming you mean the Jupe Tables. Me too :)