The vast and diverse production of the Sèvres factory in the nineteenth century resists easy characterization, and its history during this period reflects many of the changes affecting French society in the years between 1800 and 1900. Among the remarkable accomplishments of the factory was the ability to staycontinuously in the forefront of European ceramic production despite the myriad changes in technology, taste, and patronage that occurred during this tumultuous century.
The factory, which had been founded in the town of Vincennes 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 itssole 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.
However, the appointment in 1800 of Alexandre Brongniart (1770–1847) as the administrator of the factory marked a profound shift in its 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. Much of the factory’s old, undecorated stock was immediately sold off, and new forms—largely in the fashionable, more severe Neoclassical style—were designed to replace out-of-date models. The composition for hard-paste porcelain was improved, and the production of soft paste, for which the factory had been famous in the previous century, was abandoned in 1804. New enamels colors were devised, and Brongniart 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 favored 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 colors 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.
For objects produced in sets, such as dinner, tea, and coffee services, and even garnitures of vases, Brongniart preferred decorative schemes that linked the objects in terms of subject matter as well as stylistically. Dinner services were given coherence by the use of an overall theme, in addition to shared border patterns and ground colors. 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 département (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. This same type of thematic unity is found on a coffee service produced in 1836 . All of the pieces of the service are decorated with scenes depicting the cultivation of cacao, from which chocolate is made, or various stages in the preparation of chocolate as a beverage. The compositions were conceived and executed by Jean-Charles Develly, a painter at Sèvres who was responsible for many of the most ambitious dinner services produced at the factory during Brongniart’s tenure.
The range of objects produced in the first half of the nineteenth century was enormous, as were the types of decoration that they employed. A recent exhibition catalogue devoted to Brongniart’s years at Sèvres indicates that ninety-two new designs for vases were introduced, as were eighty-nine different cup models, and the types of objects produced by the factory included every sort of form required by a dinner or dessert service, coffee and tea wares, decorative objects such as vases, and functional objects such as water jugs, basins, and toiletry articles." (…)
in “Sèvres Porcelain in the Nineteenth Century” / Jeffrey Munger
Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art