The Function of Sèvres Porcelain Then and Now

Adelaide Frick’s boudoir, 1927 showing painted panels by Boucher, a desk, sculpture

Although the manufactory at Sèvres produced vases and potpourris that were purely ornamental, most of its production was in fact functional. Small pots and jars, water jugs, and basins were made for use in the morning toilette; inkstands for letter writing; tea cups and saucers, sugar bowls, milk jugs, teapots, and trays for serving afternoon tea; large dinner services with tureens, serving dishes, baskets, wine bottles, and ice-cream coolers for formal dining. These were created in a variety of shapes, sizes, and decorative styles.

In the two centuries that followed, these highly coveted objects were collected across Europe and in the United States, and eventually their functionality was lost. The garnitures, sets, and services were broken up, and pieces were displayed in China cabinets or throughout homes as expressions of their owners’ taste and distinction.

Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919) assembled his Sèvres porcelain collection during the last three years of his life. He wanted his new residence at 1 East 70th Street to eventually become a public museum for the presentation of his extraordinary collection of old master paintings and wished to have the paintings surrounded by exquisite furniture and decorative objects, as they were in the homes of the great European collectors. The art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen assisted Frick in quickly building his impressive collection.

Most of Frick’s Sèvres porcelain was purchased between 1916 and 1918, after the collector and his family had already moved into the new residence. In June 1916, Frick purchased the exquisite Sèvres pot-pourri à vaisseau and two vases à oreilles for what was then the astonishingly high sum of $100,000. This stunning set was purchased for the Fragonard Room, where it is usually displayed. At the same time, Duveen was involved in decorating Mrs. Frick’s second-floor boudoir (transferred to the first floor in 1935 and known today as the Boucher Room), “supplying everything necessary to make the room complete and beautiful in every respect,” including many Sèvres porcelains. The three pots-pourris feuilles de mirte were displayed on the mantelpiece while the vases Duplessis à enfants and the bleu céleste tea set, plates, and fruit dishes were presented in a “Sèvres porcelain Cabinet.”

The Sèvres collection formed by Henry Clay Frick was enriched in subsequent years by generous gifts from members of the Frick family and other donors. In 1934, Frick’s daughter, Helen Clay Frick (1888−1984), gave the museum two small vases with floral garlands from the Vincennes manufactory, as well as two Sèvres jugs and basins and a small sugar bowl with green ribbons. In 1980, the museum received a small sugar bowl with floral decoration, a generous gift from Marcelle Brunet, author of the French pottery and porcelains section in Porcelains in The Frick Collection (1974). On occasion, acquisitions are also made, such as the unusual vase japon, purchased in 2011.

Adelaide Frick’s boudoir, 1927.  The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

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