French porcelain has a history spanning a period from the 17th century to the present.
Soft-paste blue-and-white porcelain
Chinese porcelain had long been imported from China, and was a very expensive and desired luxury. Chinese porcelains were treasured, collected from the time of Francis I, and sometimes adorned with elaborate mountings of precious metal to protect them and enhance their beauty. Huge amounts especially of silver were sent from Europe to China to pay for the desired Chinese porcelain wares, and numerous attempts were made to duplicate the material.
It was at the Nevers manufactory that Chinese-style blue and white wares were produced for the first time in France, with production running between 1650 and 1680. Chinese styles would then be taken up by factories in Normandy, especially following the foundation of the French East India Company in 1664.
The first soft-paste porcelain in France was developed in an effort to imitate high-valued Chinese hard-paste porcelain, and follow the attempts of Medici porcelain in the 16th century. The first soft-paste frit porcelain, was produced at the Rouen manufactory in 1673, in order to mimic "la véritable porcelaine de Chine" ("The true porcelain of China"), and became known as "Porcelaine française". The technique of producing the new material was discovered by the Rouen potter Louis Poterat; his license to make "faience and porcelain" was taken out in 1673, signed by the king and Jean-Baptiste Colbert The soft porcelain used blue designs of the type already used in the faiences of the period. Dr. Martin Lister reported from his voyage to Paris, printed in 1698, that a manufacture of porcelain "as white and translucid as the one that came from the East" was in full operation at Saint-Cloud.
The French lexicographer Jacques Savary des Brûlons wrote in 1722 about these first experiments in his Dictionnaire universel du commerce:
"Fifteen or twenty years ago an attempt was made in France to copy Chinese porcelain : the first attempts made in Rouen were quite successful, (...) these faience objects from new factories are not ranked as French faience - this is the genuine porcelain invented by the French during the last few years and manufactured successively in Rouen, Passy near Paris, and then in Saint Cloud."
Colbert set up the Royal Factory of Saint-Cloud in 1664 in order to make copies (In the original "Contre-façons", i.e. "Fakes") of "Indian-style" porcelain. Saint-Cloud became a very important manufactory for the new wares.
Asian polychrome designs
France finally discovered the Chinese technique of hard-paste porcelain through the efforts of the Jesuit Father François Xavier d'Entrecolles between 1712 and 1722. The letters sent to Father Orry in Paris were first published by Jean-Baptiste Du Halde in 1735, with English editions appearing in 1736 or 1738. The letters were later again published by Abbé Jean-Baptiste Grosier in his General Description of China. D'Entrecolles also sent material specimens to Europe, which were analysed by Réaumur, and led to the establishment of the Sèvres Manufactory once equivalent materials were found in Europe.
After 1730, polychrome porcelain also came to be produced, often in imitation of Chinese polychrome styles of porcelain, such as the "Famille rose" types. The Japanese Kakiemon style of Arita porcelain, Japan, known as "Fleurs indiennes" ("Flowers of the Indies") was also used as an inspiration, especially in Saint-Cloud porcelain and Chantilly porcelain. A patent granted to the Chantilly factory in 1735 by Louis XV specifically describes the right to make porcelain façon de Japon ("in imitation of the porcelain of Japan").
Meanwhile, the manufacturing technique of soft-paste porcelain seems to have been transmitted to England by French Huguenot refugees. The first soft-paste in England was demonstrated by Thomas Briand to the Royal Society in 1742 and is believed to have been based on the Saint-Cloud formula.
Development of original French designs
After this initial period, up to the end of the 18th century, French porcelain manufactories would progressively abandon their Chinese and Japanese designs, to become more French in character. Vincennes soft-paste porcelain started to display original French inspiration towards its last years of operation, after which the abundant, varied, and original productions of Sèvres porcelain continued the trend.
Porcelain production further developed with Limoges porcelain, a type of hard-paste porcelain produced by factories near the city of Limoges, France. The manufacturing of hard-paste porcelain in Limoges was established in 1771 following the discovery of local supplies of kaolin and a material similar to petuntse in the economically distressed area at Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche, near Limoges.
In parallel, soft-paste porcelain continued to be manufactured however, as it was less expensive to produce.
- Credit being unavailable or unmanageable in the East, "in the end, the Europeans had to have recourse to precious metals, particularly American silver, which was the 'open sesame' of these trades", observes Fernand Braudel, The Perspective of the World (Civization & Capitalism, vol. III) :217; cf. section 'Gold and silver: strength or weakness?' p. 490f.
- Chinese glazes: their origins, chemistry, and recreation Nigel Wood p.240
- The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art Gerald W. R. Ward p.38
- Artificial Soft Paste Porcelain - France, Italy, Spain and England Edwin Atlee Barber p.5-6
- Hydrocolloid applications: gum technology in the food and other industries A. Nussinovitch p.193
- Porcelain Edward Dillon p.239
- M. L. Solon, "The Rouen Porcelain", The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 7 No. 26 (May 1905:116-124) p. 118.
- Lister, Relation of a Journey to Paris, London, 1698, noted in Solon 1905:116.
- Faïences et porcelaines du XVIème au XIXème siècle
- Baghdiantz McCabe, Ina (2008) Orientalism in Early Modern France, ISBN 978-1-84520-374-0, Berg Publishing, Oxford, p.220ff
- Ceramic technology by Rose Kerr, Nigel Wood, Joseph Needham p.37
- A history of pottery and porcelain: mediæval and modern by Joseph Marryat p.190
- The Grove encyclopedia of decorative arts Gordon Campbell p.223
- 18th-Century English Porcelain by George Savage, p.92
- Baghdiantz McAbe, Ina 2008 Orientalism in Early Modern France, ISBN 978-1-84520-374-0, Berg Publishing, Oxford