American Public and private collections of eighteenth-century French soft-paste porcelains are far from common. Even during their own period the difficulties and cost of manufacture marked them as luxury items, intended for a small circle of enthusiasts. For those pieces which have survived, competition among collectors has long been brisk. One of the finest collections to be found in this country is in the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford's Art Museum. For students and collectors the number of outstanding and in certain cases remarkable examples of soft-paste porcelain makes the collection one of particular importance.
This superb group of objects came to the museum thirty-six years ago as a bequest from that distinguished collector, J. Pierpont Morgan, who assembled one of the richest troves of art objects ever brought together by a private individual. Although porcelain represented only a small phase of Mr. Morgan's interests as a collector, he selected examples in which intrinsic beauty and historical importance were nicely balanced. In his collection at the Atheneum Mennecy, Vincennes, and Sevres are stressed, but there are also fine examples of Chantilly.
As the Atheneum is also fortunate in possessing Mr. Morgan's magnificent Meissen figurines, now probably the richest public collection in existence, every opportunity is provided for comparing the grace and refinement of these French porcelains with the animation which characterizes many of their beautiful Meissen counterparts. While the latter possess great verve and sparkle, it is not difficult to be persuaded in favor of the elegance of form and restraint of decoration in the French pieces.
With true hard-paste developing relatively late in France, French potters devoted their attention from the end of the seventeenth century to the somewhat more temperamental soft-paste, which they brought to a high level of technical and artistic excellence. The earliest soft-pastes, those made at Rouen, suggest similarities with faience, but in the porcelains made at the factory established in 1725 by Louis-Henri de Bourbon, Prince de Conde, at Chantilly, a new lightness and grace was evident both in form and decoration. The fine pair of apothecary Jars in the Atheneum's collection illustrates these qualities. Their thinly potted walls, softness of glaze, and sensitively treated decoration mark a new venture in Frencli porcelain manufacture. The decoration, deriving as it does from Japanese Kakiemon wares, of which there were apparently important examples in the collection of the Bourbon prince, is typical of much of the Chantilly production. An unusual Chantilly piece is a candelabrum, one of a pair, in which a Chinese ventriloquist supports an almost life-size female dummy.
Within a few years, 1734, another important center for soft-paste porcelain was established in Paris. In 1748 the factory was transferred to Mennecy, where Louis-Francois, due de Villeroy, became its patron, and in 1773 to Bourg-la-Reine, moves which account for the various phases of Mennecy. Among other productions the factory turned out groups which compare favorably with the most attractive produced elsewhere in the eighteenth century. But of all the Mennecy pieces in the collection surely the most handsome is the large bust of Louis XV, based on a full-length statue in marble by Jacques-Francois Joseph Saly erected in Valenciennes in 1772. Among French porcelains this splendid portrait of the monarch must inevitably rank high.
The establishment of the Vincennes factory in 1738 by Orry de Fulvy posed the first serious threat to the influential productions from Meissen which had exerted so strong an attraction for princely patrons and collectors all over Europe. With the stimulus and security which came from royal protection, Vincennes developed wares of a quality hitherto unknown in France and worthy of acceptance by the most discriminating collectors. More daring forms were devised, surfaces enriched with new colors, and heavy gilding tastefully applied. Working at Vincennes were a number of remarkable artisans, including Claude Thomas Duplessis, Jean Adam Mathieu, and Jean Jacques Bachelier. Madame de Pompadour not only encouraged the venture but aroused the interest of the King himself in porcelain.
Among the Vincennes examples in the Morgan collection are a number of outstanding beauty. In a ewer, the gilding and exquisitely painted exotic birds find a perfect foil in the deep gros-bleu background. Painted birds also appear on vases with a white ground and delicately tinted flowers in relief, reminiscent of Meissen. Another early Vincennes vase shown here, modeled by Duplessis, is of malachite green. Of superb quality is a Vincennes tea set, with a pale lemon yellow ground and white reserved panels painted in blue and framed with gilding; the charmingly playful scenes of children in various rustic occupations are typical of the less serious side of eighteenth-century French decoration. Another attractive Vincennes item from the Atheneum's collection is a covered dish and plate, whose shape offers an interesting comparison with that of the ‘ecuelle’, a typical form in contemporary French silver.
Among the many fine French porcelains at Hartford perhaps the most attractive is a graceful Sevres figure of Madame de Pompadour, standing beside a rose-festooned column. In her characterization as the goddess of love she appropriately holds a heart in her right hand. Only nineteen of these biscuit figures were made, presumably about 1755, after a marble statue by the eminent sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet (1716-1791). Of these only three are known to have survived; two are in collections in France, the third at the Wadsworth Atheneum. A covered bowl and plate provide an example of the skillfully painted scenes that decorate many Sevres pieces.