- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 13, 2009

Along with Faberge eggs and Aubusson rugs, cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post collected Sevres porcelains, not all of them completely authentic. A gilded ice pail displayed inside the Hillwood estate, Post’s home-turned-museum, turns out to be an English interpretation of the French ceramics.

“Look at the dull gold, the colored glaze like an orange peel,” says Liana Paredes, senior curator of Western European art at Hillwood. She points out that Post was not alone in mistaking copies for genuine Sevres. “About 90 percent of the 18th- and early 19th-century Sevres that I have been asked to identify are fakes or imitations.”

To illuminate the splendor of the real thing, Ms. Paredes has organized a survey of about 90 pieces produced by the Sevres factory from the 1700s to the 2000s.

This jewel of a show within the estate’s dacha shows off the exquisite artistry of the French porcelains, including little-known modern designs. It dispels the myth of Sevres as only producing traditional 18th-century pieces by revealing the creative range of the factory as it managed to stay at the forefront of European ceramics.

Brilliant colors and lavish touches of gold dazzle the eye from the very first display of tureens, bowls and pitchers. They were literally fit for a king, French monarch Louis XV, who assumed ownership of the Sevres porcelain factory outside Paris in 1759.

Soon the royal enterprise outstripped its competition, the German producers of Meissen, with bright hues splashed around areas of white.

The Sevres palette of vivid blues, greens and pinks was made possible by the low firing temperatures of the soft-paste blend of clay, sand and ground glass used to make the porcelains. In contrast, the Meissen factory created more impermeable ceramics like those made in China by combining a white clay called kaolin into the mix and firing the pieces at high temperatures.

Kaolin deposits were not found in France until 1768, but Sevres overcame the brittleness of the soft paste by creating decorations in harmony with the shapes of its vessels. Its success also stemmed from the talented artists hired to push the porcelains in new directions.

Designer and goldsmith Jean-Claude Duplessis energized the company with his graphic decorations, as shown in the stylized lily pads and water droplets of a basin and jug. These bold patterns mark a significant change from the more dainty, Meissen-influenced ewer and bowl displayed nearby.

More extravagant still are two vases once owned by Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV who urged him to buy the Sevres factory. They verge on the vulgar with an odd mix of elephant heads, Chinese-inspired scenes and rows of painted feathers.

Similarly luxurious novelties were given by French kings as diplomatic gifts. To honor the signing of a treaty between France and the United States in 1778, Sevres issued cups featuring envoy Benjamin Franklin’s portrait.

Key to the survival of the porcelain factory was its ability to change with the times. During the French Revolution, Sevres produced wares painted with symbols of republican values, such as a teapot in the exhibit decorated with the conical red cap of liberty.

Still, the company faced collapse until the early 1800s, when director Alexandre Brongniart breathed new life into the flagging enterprise by producing fashionable neoclassical designs.

Inspired by Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, some of the exhibit’s most arresting pieces combine golden hieroglyphics with highly realistic landscapes and portraits. (Inside the Hillwood mansion, visitors can see a modern-day Sevres porcelain of an Egyptian ruin along with an 18th-century dessert service surrounding a garden made of sugar.)

Although he improved the factory’s finances, Brongniart contributed to the industry of Sevres imitations by selling large amounts of old, undecorated stock. Buyers of these blanks then painted them in a Sevres style to cash in on the French factory’s reputation. As noted by Ms. Paredes in her excellent catalog essay, “virtually no collection, private or public, [is] untouched by the fakes.”

Significant design and technological innovations continued under Brongniart’s 47-year tenure. The exhibit includes several pieces reflecting his interest in the natural sciences, including a large vase painted with African birds.

Experimentation continued under subsequent directors during the second half of the 19th century. Vases sumptuously ornamented in the Renaissance Revival style, Chinese-inspired celadon glazes and figural decorations made from liquid clay reveal a continuing investment in new techniques.

The most surprising part of the show focuses on 20th-century designs, starting with vases patterned in the whiplash lines of art nouveau. Gesturing figurines modeled after dancer Loie Fuller and striking plates inspired by the Russian ballet show how Sevres kept up with the arts of the early 1900s.

To advertise its modern outlook, the factory exhibited its wares at international fairs. One of the standouts in the exhibit is a vase conceived by celebrated designer Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann for the 1925 decorative arts exposition in Paris.

Famous talents such as Jean Arp, Alexander Calder and Ettore Sottsass also worked at the factory to redefine traditional forms with sensuous colors and shapes.

The exhibit concludes with plates created by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa, curiously adorned with English phrases, for the French president’s residence. Cindy Sherman’s pink tureen with scenes of the artist dressed as Madame de Pompadour brings the show full circle.

Even these playful, contemporary designs reflect the incredible details and luscious colors that characterize the earlier porcelains. As the exhibit makes clear, the real Sevres transforms everyday tableware into works of art.

WHAT: “Sevres Then and Now: Tradition and Innovation in Porcelain, 1750-2000”
WHERE: Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, 4155 Linnean Ave. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; through May 30
ADMISSION: $12 adults; $10 seniors; $7 college students; $5 for children and teens (6 to 18)
PHONE: 202/686-5807
WEB SITE: www.hillwoodmuseum.org

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