Porcelain and Madame de Pompadour

Today’s guest is Nancy Bilyeau. She has worked on the staffs of InStyle, DuJour, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. She is currently the deputy editor of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at City University of New York and a regular contributor to Town & Country, Purist, and The Vintage News. She is  a native of the Midwest, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, and currently lives in New York City. Her latest novel focuses on the porcelain world of the 18th century.

Nancy Bilyeau.

In the 17th century, porcelain was an exotic, highly sought after luxury in Europe and America, with the desired objects imported from Asia at great expense. But from the first decade of the 18th century, porcelain became something else entirely. The Europeans had finally solved the mystery of the formula. Now they could make porcelain themselves.

The breakthroughs came in two areas: A French Jesuit priest learned the closely guarded secrets of making porcelain at Jingdezen from Chinese Catholic converts around 1712 and wrote long letters to France disclosing his findings. Simultaneously, a chemist and alchemist being held against his will in Saxony, pressured to learn how to make porcelain by  August the Strong, figured out the materials required to produce the white, translucent, high-fired porcelain.

These discoveries were “to have profound consequences for the entire European ceramic industry,” according to a paper published at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Competition raged among the workshops and manufactories that sprang up in Germany, France, England, and the Netherlands.

By the late 1750s, a winner was more or less acknowledged: the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres. The triumph of Sèvres would not have been possible without the support of King Louis XV. And the Bourbon monarch would not have become so deeply involved with Sèvres Porcelain were it not for the instigation of his longtime mistress, Madame de Pompadour.

The creations of Sèvres, elaborate and ambitious and highly artistic, were the obsession of Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, who became the mistress of Louis XV in 1745 and continued to hold a place in his life until she died in 1764.

Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher. Public domain.

She was beautiful, vivacious, and cultured, but she always had enemies. At first, it was because she was not an aristocrat but came from the bourgeoisie. This was unheard of before her arrival in the King’s life. Later, those who jostled for power at Versailles were jealous of her power. There were many attempts to dislodge her, which made her life stressful, no doubt.

Louis XV, who became King of France at the age of five, an orphan prince, seems to have been a lonely and depressed man. “Melancholic” is the word often used. He married a Polish princess when young, and they had children together, but he grew restless and had had affairs before he fell in love with Madame de Pompadour in his mid-thirties.

The key to the relationship seems to have been that she worked incredibly hard to amuse, divert, distract, and entertain Louis XV, who was easily bored. He bought her houses that she decorated from top to bottom. She had original plays written and performed for the King, with her acting in the plays. To immerse him in a truly novel existence, she had a house built in the gardens of Versailles that was like a simple cottage, and there the King could relax with her in a different way — he liked to try his hand at cooking.

And then there was the porcelain. The manufactory at Vincennes had had many ups and downs before she became its patroness. Her interest changed its fortunes. In 1756 the Vincennes premises were considered too cramped and a new factory was built in the village of Sèvres, near Versailles.

The designs of the Sèvres porcelain, both shapes and colors, were ambitious. The finest artists and France’s leading chemists worked there. The soft-paste porcelain bodies were purer and freer of imperfections than their rivals. In 1759, Louis XV, who had been a chief backer, decided to become sole owner of the manufactory. He liked to give sets of porcelain to diplomats and others he wished to impress. This was all incredibly expensive — and the drain on the royal treasury took place during the Seven Years War, a difficult conflict that France ultimately lost.

Potpourri vase (Vase potpourri à vaisseau) designed by Jean-Claude Chambellan Duplessis (1699–1774) for the
Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

There are two stories that stand out when it comes to Madame de Pompadour and Sèvres. One is that she invited her royal lover to join her at a certain hothouse one day. When he arrived, she was seated in the middle of a sea of delicate flowers. The King soon realized that all of these flowers were not plants but made of delicate porcelain; she had also arranged for floral scents to fill the space.

The second story is that she prevailed upon the chief chemist of Sèvres, Jean Hellot, to create the most beautiful pink color ever seen — pink being her favorite color. He put all of his skill to the task, and invented a shade named “Rose Pompadour,” striking for its beauty. 

Sèvres Porcelain outlasted Madame de Pompadour and Louis XV. Although it was an undoubted luxury cherished by royalty and the aristocrats, the revolutionaries did not destroy the manufactory when they overthrew the Bourbons. By this time, everyone seems to have taken a national pride in its artistry. Napoleon and both of his wives also took an interest in Sèvres Porcelain. However, the Empire Style was not considered as innovative as its predecessors, and by the mid-19th century, Sèvres, while still respected, no longer was seen as the European leader in porcelain production.

Nancy Bilyeau can be found on twitter at @Tudorscribe. Her latest novel is “The Blue,” a historical thriller about a young Huguenot artist who becomes involved in a spy mission in a porcelain factory. For more information on her book and to learn about her and her website, click here.

Cover to Nancy’s latest novel, “The Blue.”


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