Vase with scenes of storm at sea

Manufacturer Dihl et Guérhard French
Possibly painted by Jean-Baptiste Coste French

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 553

In the closing decades of the eighteenth century, a number of porcelain factories were established in Paris that offered both commercial and artistic competition to the Sèvres factory, despite the latter’s royal status and the patronage of its products as encouraged by Louis XVI (1754–1793), king of France. Many of these newly founded factories had royal protectors who allowed them to operate regardless of the monopoly that Sèvres continued to enjoy, and the majority of the Paris enterprises focused solely on the production of hard-paste porcelain. One of the most successful of these factories was first known by the name of its protector, Louis-Antoine d’Artois (French, 1775–1844), duc d’Angoulême (Manufacture de Monsieur Le Duc d’Angoulême), and later known as the Dihl et Guérhard factory at the time of the French Revolution (1789–99).

The factory was founded in 1781 by Christophe Dihl (German, 1753–1830), a potter from Neustadt, in collaboration with Antoine Guérhard (French, d. 1793), who, along with his wife Louise-Françoise-Madeleine Croizé (French, 1751–1831), provided the funds and assumed the administrative responsibilities for the new firm.[1] Critically, the factory was able to acquire the patronage of the duc d’Angoulême despite the fact that he was only five at the time that his protection of the factory was granted. By 1785, the factory was sufficiently successful to be able to employ thirty painters and twelve sculptors,[2] and it soon outgrew its original quarters on the rue de Bondy and moved to new premises on the rue du Temple in 1789. Dihl’s technological expertise must have been considerable, because the quality of the factory’s products was unusually high, and the level of decoration practiced by the factory’s painters made its wares among the finest of any of the Parisian firms. The factory became known for its skill in painting grounds in imitation of a variety of hardstones, and Dihl was particularly interested in developing improved enamel colors, eventually presenting his experiments and research to the Académie des Sciences et des Beaux- Arts, Paris, in 1797. A well-known porcelain plaque painted with Dihl’s portrait from the same year reflects his various ceramic priorities, including a palette of colors, materials for making porcelain, and several pieces of porcelain that represent some of the factory’s achievements.[3] Dihl et Guérhard had already developed a distinguished clientele by this time, and the American diplomat Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816) made repeated visits to the factory in the years 1789–93, often acting on behalf of President George Washington (1732–1799) and noting that “We find that the porcelain here is more elegant and cheaper than it is at Sèvres.”[4] Dihl appears to have been a skillful entrepreneur as well, as evidenced by his negotiations with the London merchant Thomas Flight (British, 1726–1800) to sell the factory’s porcelains in England for a six-year period beginning in 1789.[5]

Both the technical quality and artistic innovation that characterize the best of Dihl et Guérhard’s production are evident in the Museum’s vases.[6] They are decorated with a ground of brilliant yellow, one of the colors that Dihl learned to fire successfully on hard paste, which often proved challenging in regard to ground colors. The yellow sections of each vase are decorated in black enamel with delicately rendered scrolls, peacocks, garlands of flowers, and, most prominently, with female terms, or half-length figures, alternating with birds resting in baskets of flowers.[7] This type of decoration is commonly known as “grotesque,” a reference to motifs painted in ancient Roman grottoes, which were rediscovered during the Renaissance. Grotesque decoration became popular again in late eighteenth- century France, where it was employed in either painted or carved form in fashionable interior architecture.

The most startling aspect of the vases’ decoration, however, is the uninterrupted landscape encircling each vase. Painted in grisaille, or monochrome gray, both scenes depict storms: one on land and one at sea. The continuous nature of each scene allows for small vignettes that illustrate the various effects of each storm; the common element to both is the harsh impact on the small human figures exposed to the turbulent weather. The painter of the two vases has captured in great detail the atmospheric effects of the howling wind, driving rain, and crashing waves, while also conveying the battering experienced by the figures attempting to move through the tempestuous landscapes.
Storms were a popular subject in late eighteenth-century landscape painting, especially as the concept of the Sublime or the awareness of powerful natural forces beyond man’s control was increasingly embraced by the educated classes at this time. Land or seascapes depicting natural disasters and the immensity of nature compared to man were a common choice of subject for artists, but such paintings were often paired with a work representing the calm before or after a storm, continuing a centuries- long tradition of illustrating nature in both its benign and hostile aspect. The fact that the Dihl et Guérhard factory chose to pair a storm at sea with a storm on land raises the possibility that a specific meaning was intended by this unusual selection, especially given the rarity of this subject matter on porcelain.

It is conceivable that these two stormy scenes can be interpreted as reflections of the political turmoil enveloping France in the late 1790s. King Louis XVI and Queen Marie- Antoinette (1755–1793) had been guillotined in 1793; the Reign of Terror had paralyzed the country from 1793 to 1794; and under the Directoire (1795–99), the country’s finances were in total disarray, religious institutions were under attack, and political tides were constantly shifting. It is plausible that the depiction of a turbulent and harsh natural world, where men and women are buffeted by forces outside of their control, is a statement about the extreme instability of the political and social climate in which the vases were produced. The factory’s location in close proximity to the Temple, where the royal family had been imprisoned before being executed, may have influenced the perception of perva-sive insecurity and volatility.

Even if this possible interpretation cannot be substanti-ated, the pair of vases reflects a level of quality and innovation that was unsurpassed at this time. Dihl et Guérhard employed some of the finest porcelain painters working in France during this period, and due to the success of its export business, the factory was able to pursue new forms of decoration and create new models while other ceramic enterprises, including Sèvres, were striving to remain solvent. Dihl et Guérhard’s standing among the French porcelain manufacturers is best reflected by a letter written in 1800 on behalf of the Spanish Queen Maria Luisa (1751–1819), indicating her interest in patronizing the factory rather than Sèvres, because the porce-lain “would be in a taste more modern and more pure.”[8]

(For key to shortened references see bibliography in Munger, European Porcelain in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018)
1 For a history of the factory, see Plinval de Guillebon 1972, pp. 200–207; Plinval de Guillebon 1988; Dawson 1994, pp. 356–58; Plinval de Guillebon 1995, pp. 142–51, 352–57.
2 Dawson 1994, p. 358.
3 Plinval de Guillebon 1995, fig. 63.
4 Plinval de Guillebon 1972, p. 300.
5 Anderson 2000, pp. 99–100; Plinval de Guillebon 1995, p. 117.
6 Neither vase is marked, but the pair is attributed to Dihl et Guérhard on the basis of stylistic similarity to a pair of marked vases in the Onslow Collection, Clandon Park, Surrey, England; Ferguson 2016, pp. 174–75.
7 Similar grotesque decoration is found on a Dihl et Guérhard vase in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (309:1, 2- 1876), and on the pair of vases in Clandon Park (see note 6).
8 Plinval de Guillebon 1992, p. 133.

Vase with scenes of storm at sea, Dihl et Guérhard (French, 1781–ca. 1824) (Manufacture de Monsieur Le Duc d’Angoulême, until 1789), Hard-paste porcelain decorated in polychrome enamels, gold, French, Paris

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