Porcelain was a relatively unknown commodity in seventeenth-century France. Examples of both Chinese and Japanese porcelain could be found in royal and aristocratic collections, but because of their cost, these objects were available only to the highest levels of society. Before the last decade of the seventeenth century, there was no domestic production of porcelain in France, and faience (tin-glazed earthenware) was the most common type of ceramic.
It is not surprising that the first porcelains produced in France were made at faience factories. Experiments in a Rouen faience factory owned by the Poterat family resulted in some of the earliest examples of soft-paste porcelain made in France. Soft-paste porcelain was a type of artificial porcelain that lacked the ingredients found in true, or hard-paste, porcelain. One of these ingredients, known as kaolin, was not discovered in France until the second half of the eighteenth century, and all French porcelain produced before 1770 was soft- rather than hard-paste.
None of the few surviving pieces produced at Rouen in the 1690s bears a factory mark, but they have been attributed to this factory on the basis of their bluish glaze and distinctive underglaze blue decoration (50.211.186). In the very same years, the faience factory at Saint-Cloud was also experimenting with making soft-paste porcelain, and it appears that their earliest products also date from the 1690s. The first wares produced at Saint-Cloud closely imitated Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, but soon its painters initiated a wholly French style of decoration that derived from French prints of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (17.190.1912ab). The underglaze blue decorative scheme of Chinese porcelain was retained, but the subject matter was now typically French, and the vocabulary of foliage, scrollwork, and animals or human heads could also be found on French silver of the period (48.187.249,.250).
In 1730, Louis Henry, the duc de Bourbon, established a soft-paste porcelain factory on the grounds of his château in Chantilly. The duke was an avid collector of Asian porcelains, and the products of the Chantilly factory from its founding until the duke’s death in 1740 were heavily influenced by Japanese porcelain in particular. Some of the Chantilly wares directly copy Japanese pieces, while others are executed in a style reminiscent of Japanese porcelain. A large Chantilly jar of about 1735–40 copies a Japanese form, but its decoration depicts scenes of life in the Far East as imagined by a French artist (50.211.121).
The French factory of Mennecy had its roots in a small ceramic enterprise founded by François Barbin in the town of Villeroy. When this first operation failed financially, Barbin reopened his factory in nearby Mennecy in 1750. The production of the Mennecy factory remained modest in terms of both scale and ambition, despite the patronage of the duc de Villeroy, but it produced utilitarian ware of considerable originality and somewhat naive charm (50.211.125a–c). The factory went into decline with the deaths of Barbin and his son in 1765, finally closing in 1773.
The soft-paste porcelain factory founded at Vincennes in about 1740 was to dominate not only the French ceramic industry, but also the entirety of European ceramics for the second half of the eighteenth century. The factory quickly developed a superior soft-paste porcelain body that was whiter and freer of imperfections than any of its French rivals (1972.132.1). It also hired the most talented French artists to design shapes and provide drawings and prints for the factory’s painters. The Vincennes factory attracted the attention of Louis XV, who not only provided financial backing, but also purchased the first dinner service the factory produced (1970.230.4). The king became the sole owner of the factory in 1759, three years after it had moved to larger quarters in Sèvres, located to the west of Paris. The Sèvres factory flourished because of its constant innovation; new forms were always in development, sometimes pushing the established boundaries of porcelain (58.75.65). New types of decoration also appeared constantly, as the factory looked to different sources of inspiration, such as classical antiquity (1997.518) or Japanese lacquer (62.165.1). By the mid-1750s, the Sèvres factory had assumed artistic leadership in Europe from Germany’s Meissen factory (1974.356.363), and it continued to set standards for European porcelain production through the remainder of the century.