The Mistress of Sèvres: Madame du Pompadour

By Karen Parr-Moody

 

The quintessential tastemaker of her era, Madame du Pompadour was the official mistress – or maîtresse-en-titre – of Louis XV of France (photo, right). A self-made woman born a “commoner” – her father was a financier, not an aristocrat – she met Louis XV at Versailles in 1745. She became his mistress shortly afterward and remained so until the early 1750s. Then she remained his closest friend and adviser until her death in 1764.

 

Before she met Louis XV, Madame du Pompadour was passionately involved with the newly established salon culture of Paris. A woman of artistic vision, she greatly influenced the king on aesthetic matters. Many would argue that her lasting achievement was supporting France’s Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory.

 

I was recently reminded of Madame du Pompadour’s contribution to Sèvres when I visited the exhibit “From Sèvres to Fifth Avenue: French Porcelain at The Frick Collection” in New York City. The exhibit runs through April 24, 2016.

 

The objects in the exhibit include a table, vases, jugs, basins, potpourris, plates and a tea service. One incredibly rare piece on view is the pot-pourri à vaisseau, circa 1759, a vase in the shape of a ship with a windblown mast (photo, left). This particular design originated in the emerging rococo style in 1757. Created by the Sèvres manufactory artistic director, Jean-Claude Duplessis, the design is considered by many Sèvres aficionados to be its finest. The original plaster model is still kept at the factory.

 

This pot-pourri à vaisseau reminded me of Madame du Pompadour because she owned two such pieces during her lifetime, according to curatorial records of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (The one in the Frick exhibit was not owned by Madame du Pompadour; its early history is unknown.)

 

Like all of the pot-pourri à vaisseau models, the one in the Frick Collection is made of soft-paste porcelain (with a gilt-bronze mount that was added later). Each surviving model features a different decoration, and this one features exotic birds painted on the front and back reserves. They were done by Louis-Denis Armand, an artist of that time who specialized in natural landscapes and birds. Gold – used exclusively by the Sèvres manufactory during that era – was applied to the contours of these pot-pourri à vaisseau.

 

During Madame du Pompadour’s lifetime not many pot-pourri à vaisseau were made. This was mainly due to the incredible technical challenges of producing each one, which involved creating fine sculptural details, along with extensive openwork and piercing of the sails and rigging.

 

Only 10 exist today, and evidence suggests that only 12 were originally produced between 1757 and 1764. Of the surviving models, there are five in each size. The smaller ones were produced 1757 and the larger ones were produced in 1759. They are located in the most important art collections in the world: the Musée du Louvre, the Royal Collection, the Wallace Collection in London, Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire (photo, right), the Frick Collection in New York, the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore and the J.P. Getty Museum in Malibu.

 

Even in the eighteenth century, the pot-pourri à vaisseau was highly regarded and the expense of purchasing one was great. They were sold to the wealthiest members of society, including Madame de Pompadour’s brother, Marquis de Marigny (the whereabouts of his are unknown).  Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, bought his pot-pourri à vaisseau in a garniture of other pieces; it is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

According to the Metropolitan Museum’s records, “A garniture of five vases cost the prince the impressive sum of 4,320 livres, an amount that exceeded the annual income of a typical professional worker in the eighteenth century.”

 

Sèvres – which ultimately became the most important French porcelain factory – was founded in 1740 in the 14th-century royal Château de Vincennes (photo, left; an illustration of the château in 1740). In 1756 it moved to Sèvres, a village that belonged to Madame de Pompadour (a gift of the king) and was near one of her homes, the Château de Bellevue. The manufactory was shortly thereafter was bought by Louis XV.

 

The king and Madame de Pompadour ensured that the factory could hire the best artists, sculptors and chemists. Additionally, because Madame de Pompadour decorated with Sèvres items, such wares became a favorite among royals and courtiers.

 

One of the pot-pourri à vaisseau with which Madame de Pompadour decorated is now in the Royal Collection, acquired by George IV, who lived from 1762 to 1830 (photo, right). The larger of the design’s shapes, it is decorated with two ground colors, green and dark blue, and features a front reserve that depicts a scene inspired by David Teniers the Younger. Like all of the models, the masthead is a fluttering white pennant patterned with fleurs-de-lis.

 

According to the Royal Collection’s website, “The vase was purchased in 1759 at the end-of-year sale at Versailles by Madame de Pompadour for 960 livres.”

 

My favorite of the two pot-pourri à vaisseau that Madame de Pompadour owned is now on display at the Musée du Louvre (photo, left). Created in 1760, it features one reserve on which Charles-Nicolas Dodin painted three Chinese figures; chinoiserie was a new type of decoration that Madame de Pompadour seems to have enjoyed. The painting stands out against blue and green accents, along with a predominately pink background – the color which appeared at Sèvres in 1757 and was ultimately called Rose Pompadour.

 

This pink pot-pourri à vaisseau decorated the bed chamber of Madame de Pompadour in her residence, Hôtel d’Évreux (currently the Palais de l’Elysée; in the photo, right, is one of the rooms, called the Salon de Pompadour). She acquired it in 1753 and I can only imagine how splendid that bed chamber must have appeared in 1760, when she accented it with her newly acquired possession. The pot-pourri à vaisseau was the pièce de résistance then, and 255 years later it remains one of history’s finest examples of porcelain sculpture.

 

 

 

 

 

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