“Luxury and Passion: Inventing French Porcelain”

Decorated by Armand l’ainé (French, ca. 1750–1800). Made by Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory (Sèvres, France, established 1756). Grand Déjeuner Corbeille, 1757. Soft-paste porcelain with overglaze enamels and gilding; variable dimensions. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Purchase: acquired through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Perry Faeth, F89-27/1-11.

August 13, 2022 – August 12, 2024
Gallery P10

Porcelain is ubiquitous in our daily lives. We cook with it, drink our morning coffee or tea out of it, decorate with it. It even can augment our smiles. Yet three centuries ago, this beautiful, durable type of ceramic was the focus of intense competition about European superpowers, all who raced to discover how to make this “white gold” for themselves, after falling in love with imported Asian wares. This summer, in a two-year focus installation, the Nelson-Atkins explores how France launched itself into the domestic porcelain industry in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“Luxury and Passion” celebrates the debut of a new acquisition, one of the earliest pieces of soft-paste porcelain made in France in the late 17th century. This potpourri jar, one of the handful of experimental pieces made by the Poterat Manufactory in Rouen, France, is one of only about a dozen surviving works by this brief-lived company, and only the second example in a U.S. museum (only four exist in museums worldwide).

Designed by Louis Poterat (French, 1641–1696). Made by Louis Poterat Manufactory (Rouen, France, 1690–1696). Potpourri Jar, ca. 1690–1696. Soft-paste porcelain with underglaze enamel decoration; 4 7/8 × 4 1/2 inches (12.4 × 11.4 cm). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: the Lillian M. Diveley Fund, 2021.10.

Like other would-be porcelain producers, the French were uncertain about the exact formula for porcelain. Because they did not know that kaolin clay is needed to be part of the mixture, the earliest French porcelain is soft-paste, a type of ceramic fired at a lower temperature that is more akin to a fritted glass rather than true, or hard-paste porcelain. Despite not discovering kaolin deposits in France until nearly the end of the 18th century, French factories turned soft-paste porcelain into one of the signal luxury goods of Early Modern Europe, celebrated for its beauty, its distinctive glazes and its aura of exclusivity.

This acquisition of the Poterat potpourri jar gave us the opportunity to reinstall almost the entire collection of the Museum’s important 18th-century French porcelain holdings. The installation tells the story of how new factories — the 18th-century equivalent of start-ups —began to proliferate in and around Paris, all vying for elite customers — before they were all eclipsed at mid-century by one powerhouse company that became a royal subsidiary: the Vincennes factory, later relocated and renamed Sèvres.

Decorated by François Binet (French, active 1750–1775). Made by Vincennes Porcelain Manufactory (Vincennes, France, ca. 1739–1756). Watering Can (Arresoir), 1755–1756. Soft-paste porcelain with enamel and gilding; height: 9 inches (22.9 cm). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: the Lillian M. Diveley Fund, F94-20.

The concentration of these works next to each other in this focus gallery will encourage visitors to take closer looks at the extraordinary craft and beauty of these dazzling objects. See a floral-bedecked — and fully functional — watering can. Or take in a one-of-a kind breakfast service, commissioned by Louis XV and sent as a diplomatic gift to Maria Theresa of Austria to mark the cessation of hostilities between the two countries and the engagement of his grandson to her daughter, the ill-fated, future Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Or imagine decorating your dining room table with highly detailed, small-scale biscuit (unglazed) figural groups that mimicked the fashionable sugar sculptures that had begun appearing as ornaments for dessert courses, but which had the advantage of not rotting and not attracting ants to your dinner party!

“Luxury and Passion” will hopefully remind our visitors that the Nelson-Atkins, like Kansas City itself, is a great place to see ceramics from all cultures and all periods of art history.

–William Keyse Rudolph, Deputy Director, Curatorial Affairs, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

CategoriesArts Consortium

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