The great European vogue for Asian porcelain during the seventeenth century inspired entrepreneurs, collectors, and chemists alike to try to create their own version. True (hard-paste) porcelain was not, however, produced in Europe until 1709, when the Meissen manufactory in Saxony (near Dresden) succeeded by mixing the essential ingredient of kaolin (a soft white clay) with quartz feldspar. In France, hard-paste porcelain was not produced until 1768, before which French potters had produced soft-paste porcelain by mixing powdered glass and marl (refined clay) with lead oxide and chalk to make the material a gleaming white. In 1740, a manufactory was established in Vincennes, in one of the towers of the old royal château. After several years of trial and error, a successful soft-paste porcelain was produced and, in July 1745, a patent granted. Issued for twenty years for the production of a Meissen-like porcelain, the patent was immediately transferred to a company consisting of seven stockholders, among them, Pierre Calabre, after whom a sugar bowl and a teapot in the exhibition are named.
Louis XV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour took a particular interest in the manufactory, which in 1756 was moved to specially constructed buildings in the town of Sèvres, halfway between the royal castles of the Tuileries and Versailles. Three years later, Louis XV became the principal stockholder of the factory; under his patronage, it became the most important soft-paste porcelain factory in Europe. This was in part due to renowned artists such as François Boucher and Jean-Claude Duplessis, goldsmith to the king, who provided highly original models and designs. Also key to the manufactory’s success was the chemist Jean Hellot, an eminent member of the Academy of Sciences who continually developed new colors and refined existing ones. In 1753, Hellot created a turquoise blue, also called bleu céleste or bleu du roi, that was used as the ground color of a dinner service made that year for Louis XV. Many of the pieces shown here have turquoise blue grounds, their variations in tone reflecting the changes made in the formula over the years.
Due to its cost, Sèvres porcelain was owned exclusively by the kings of France, their wives and mistresses, and the wealthiest men and women of the kingdom and abroad. Commissioned or purchased either at the manufactory or in the lavish Parisian shops of the celebrated marchands-merciers (merchants of luxury goods), Sèvres pieces were also presented as gifts to the French kings’ courtiers and to foreign monarchs.