International Exposition of Paris 1867

Agriculture, Industry and Fine Arts

April 1, 1867 - November 3, 1867


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Imperial Manufacture of Sèvres

Imperial Manufacture of Sèvres at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1867

We read in Scripture that the Lord, who was fasting and praying in the desert, was tempted by the devil. Satan came to him and spoke to him in these words:
"Command these stones to become bread! "

Jesus answered proudly, and with a word he shut the unclean mouth that provoked him.

Today the stones and clay, thanks to human genius and industry, which I hope are not diabolical, but rather commanded and directed by the breath of God, today the clay and the stones are transformed and transfigured into delicate and fine materials, as precious as the rarest and most sought-after metals.

It was God who first moulded and shaped clay, and man, by his very origins, by the instinct of his own nature and the inspiration of his Creator, must have been led from early on, it seems to me, to the work of pottery and ceramics.

The history of these works would be more curious and instructive than many others. One would find in it the successive progress and improvements of an art worthy of all attention and esteem, which is inseparable from all other material and moral advances, and which probably began with our race.

I cannot think, indeed, that the first individuals of the human race were long resigned to drinking from the palm of their hand. This was too primitive, too rudimentary, too imperfect a vessel, and to which one could have rightly applied what Horace says: Plenus rimarum sum; huc alque illuc perfluo__.

Soon ingenious shepherds judged that the horns of their goats, rams and bulls were vessels given by nature. Here lies the true etymology of the general name of ceramics, which is applied to all pottery. They cut, sculpted and embellished as much as they could these convenient horns which served more than one purpose: they collected and preserved the fresh water of meals, then, in the evening, filled with a sonorous air, they recalled and brought back the herds from all corners of the horizon.

But invention always going forward and to discovery, it was not long before river silt was used, or that malleable and fat clay, which softens under the fingers at the whim of all wills and whims, and which, hardened in the sun or baked in front of the ashes of the rent, keeps the imprint it has received.

From then on there were potters, and although these primitive workers limited their work to the utensils of the house and the stable, they were not afraid to be ranked among the artists. The Greeks showered them with honours, and later, as the craft, as it were, became more refined, as the material, increasingly docile to the skilful hands that shaped it, took on elegant contours and harmonious lines, admiration and infatuation grew and grew.

Herodotus and Homer celebrated the potters of their time, and often, in the writers of bucolic and idyllic tales, we see that the prize of the poem was no other than a beautiful earthen cup full of tasty, steaming milk.

It would be too long to enter here into details and to show how all the peoples of antiquity, in the East and in the West, the Egyptians, the Chaldeans, the Greeks, the Romans, have perfected from age to age the art of pottery, and how, after porous vessels They had glazed and varnished vessels with a layer of vitrifiable clay, which, in the form of birds, reptiles and monsters, were intended to contain oil or wine, or to preserve the perfumes consecrated to the deities of the nation.

It is said that already in the middle ages the Chinese had invented porcelain proper and that they made for the palace of the Son of Heaven "cups as blue as the firmamen, as seen after rain in the interval of the clouds. "They were," says the Chinese author, "blue like the sky, shiny like a mirror, smooth like paper, sound like a harmonious khing, polished and shiny, and distinguished as much by the fineness of the veins or cracks as by the beauty of the colour.

It is Mr. Stanislas Julien, in his Histoire et fabrication de la porcelaine chinoise, who translated this testimony of the degree of perfection and richness to which the art of ceramics had reached in China since the Middle Ages. In this picture, it is easy to believe oneself in the middle of the nineteenth century and in the middle of the Sèvres porcelain exhibition.

The Japanese, neighbours of the Chinese, did not fail to go and learn at their school, and before long the porcelains of Japan and those of China rivalled in brilliance and beauty.

During this time," wrote M. Turgan in his remarkable and beautiful work on the Great Factories of France, "while the Chinese and Japanese were reaching the highest peak of ceramic art," Europe was making with difficulty glazes and pottery that were very pleasant from the point of view of a certain naive art that is still admired by monomaniacal antiquarians, but that could only be used for very limited purposes, since they could not withstand the action of fire. "

The sentence seems harsh to me, especially when I remember our Limoges enamels, which were of such a silky and pure touch: but all in all, the reflection is right.

However, as Europe is never long deprived of any good, useful or pleasant invention, and as what was not first discovered here is not long in coming to be perfected, it happened that in the first third of the sixteenth century, at the very moment when the first Chinese porcelains arrived in Italy and France, Lucca della Robia and Orazio Fontana had discovered the magnificent earthenware of Tuscany, and that masterpieces abounded in their factories.

The immortal Bernard de Palissy followed closely behind.

Henri IV had the glory of establishing the first earthenware factories in Paris, Nevers and Saintonge. But if this was a step towards porcelain, it was not yet porcelain, that precious and pure pottery of the Chinese and Japanese, and it is only around 1711 that we find real and remarkable imitations of it. The Saxon porcelain factory was founded by Boettger and Tschirnhaus, who only succeeded in forming a beautiful, solid red stoneware when Jean Schnorr found the kaolin. This was really finding the secret of the Chinese.

The Sèvres factory, which I am anxious to get to, was first established by eight sponsors, then bought in 1760 by King Louis XV, who provided it with a fund of 96,000 francs a year and gave it M. Boileau as director.

Mme de Pompadour, who has been too much maligned, encouraged the king to become the direct protector of an establishment which was to honour his reign for ever and which, in this time of royal weaknesses and decreases, does not fail to bear witness to some grandeur. One senses an inspiration superior to the ordinary wishes of Louis the Beloved.

Sèvres, since then, has had various fortunes; but directed unceasingly by the most competent and skilful scholars, taking advantage of all the discoveries, calling upon all the lights, it has seen its prosperity increase and, so to speak, renew itself each day; for industry cannot remain immutable or stationary: it must, at the risk of altering, degrading and perishing, go forward and change and modify itself by perfecting itself relentlessly.

The vases made in the past could be reproached for some ungainly stiffness, something stilted and academic; but, year after year, this false taste of bad times has been corrected and cured, and the purest models have been sought where they are, in Athens, in Rome and in the traditions so classical and so perfect of the Renaissance.

It is M. Régnault, one of our most eminent chemists, who is in charge of the direction of the Imperial Manufacture of Sèvres, and we owe his science many precious discoveries, which have exclusively enriched the recovery which was entrusted to him. He knows, and he has taste; the work, whatever it is, bears his double mark.

There would certainly be something to interest and instruct the reader in the detailed account of the meticulous, delicate and ingenious processes used to produce a piece of porcelain. I feel, for my part, as much curious interest and emotion in it as in the account of the victories and conquests of many vaunted peoples who have made only a great sterile noise here below. But such de ails cannot, alas! enter into our framework, and I must limit myself here to advising the reader to go and visit for himself this vast and splendid establishment of Sèvres, everything will be profitable for his eyes and for his mind.

As for us, who must confine ourselves to the admirable Exhibition of the porcelains of Sèvres, our share is still rather broad and rather complete, and I do not know, among the wonders which are displayed here and there at the Champ de Mars, anything which shows better the progress of industry united to art, when by seeking the useful we find also the beautiful, and that we have the invaluable gift to know how to marry them.... This marriage has been fruitful for the honour of this time and the glory of our country.

On entering the room where the porcelains of the Imperial Manufacture of Sèvres are displayed and grouped together below the beautiful carpets of the Imperial Manufacture of Gobelins, one is struck, I say, by the very way in which this room is decorated and adorned. There is at the same time luxury, sobriety, and couvenance in all respects. M. Ruprich-Robert, who was in charge of this decoration, is a talented architect, and has known how to make the most of the smallest details for the beauty and grace of the whole.

For many years, soft paste had been abandoned in Sèves, where hard paste absorbed all the attention and care. But now this delicious and incomparable production has been resumed and taken to the last limits of elegance, so to speak. In addition, the factory has become a veritable school of ceramics, in which it was intended that all varieties of pottery should be represented, without, however, slavishly taking the old earthenware as a model, and preserving for all products their French nationality.

How old Saxony and even China are reached and surpassed! We have, at the Champ de Mars, samples of all kinds, where the monumental and the grandiose mingle with the delicate and the cute, and where statuary and painting and the most refined art of enamellers compete together, and mingle and achieve prestigious effects.

The exhibition of the products of the Sèvres factory cannot be analysed. It would be madness to try to show you, from one vase to another, from a cup to a shell, from a group to a statuette, that the clay has sometimes acquired the brilliance of fine stones, sometimes the value of gold and silver. Again, it is like a new creation that has come out of the obedient and prodigal earth, and, following the example of the Creator, the inspired creature can also judge that his work is good. The sunbeam seems to have been captured and fixed in these diaphanous and pearly pastes, where the colours take on soft or vivid tints, and the drawing a more exact and pure relief. It is certainly more enviable to possess a Sèvres ewer, decorated with drawings on paste fired in the great fire, than many dishes and plates made of flatware, and the very fragility of the work, all that it demanded in order to be able to appear in the full light of the connoisseurs, without fear or reproach, all that it required of constant vigilance and infinite solicitude, still increases its price and glory.

This frail pottery reminds me of those frail and light beauties, such that a gust of wind that touches them can break or take them away, and which are all the more charming to the eyes that are trained to discover the mysterious attraction and the charm in all things. A lily is far from being as resistant as a peony, and yet who does not prefer the lily to the peony?

Sèvres enamels fear no rivalry in the past or in the present. The future will have difficulty in finding better, we would say, if it were allowed to challenge the genius of posterity and the discoveries of the future.

The very commendable designers and decorators of the Manufacture de Sèvres would deserve glorious mentions, and if this article, which, once again, can only stand in generalities, were to point out everything that seems to me worthy, not only of the attention of the quarter of an hour, but of a distant and lasting fame, there would not be enough room in this collection for a reasoned criticism and for taking its conclusions.

I indicate, and beg the intelligent reader to fill in the gaps.

What remains above all discussion is the superiority of the Sèvres factory over all the foreign factories, its rivals, and one can boldly say, with my friend M. Paul Dalloz, who is himself an authority in such a debate, can boldly say: "Order from Sèvres or from any of our French potters dishes and ewers in any style you like, offer the price you would have been asked in England for such pieces, and we guarantee you superior execution from both the artistic and the material point of view.

One could not speak with more accuracy; and let us not, I implore you, cry chauvinism before having seen and compared, at the exhibition of the Champ de Mars, the foreign ceramics with our French ceramics.

The earthenware of Sèvres, let us agree frankly, is not as good as its porcelain, and the private industry is still ahead on this point. But, in the face of very honourable trials and attempts which show the zeal and knowledge with which this kind of pottery, so dear to the amateurs, has been undertaken, one can only augur great success in the near future. What else can one not expect from an establishment where progress is a common law and a daily duty, always scrupulously accomplished?

It is an ingenious idea to have brought together and presented side by side the products of French ceramics and the tapestries of the Gobelins and Beauvais. The eye, as it moves from one to the other, only changes in enthusiasm, and one really feels proud before this exhibition of the industrial arts in France. A chansonnier, poor Emile Debraux, said somewhere:
Ah! that one is proud to be French,
When one looks at the Column.

Well, I felt even prouder the other day when I looked at the porcelain of Sèvres and the tapestries of the Gobelins. The European nations, our neighbours and our allies, are standing very close to us in this arena where humanity, in fractions and troops, is courageously pursuing its struggle, and tomorrow they may reach us.

Let us not complain, and let us congratulate ourselves on being able to observe those generous unanimities which the Champ de Mars Exhibition has so vigorously brought out; but even today, let us say it loudly, we stand, there as elsewhere, in the vanguard!

©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée