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A moment in French history

Posted on March 26, 2020 at 3:00 PM by Adrienne Gennett

Souvenirs mark moments in time or places, milestones personally or for the world. This French “Cup and Saucer” from 1789, part of the Creating Global Understanding exhibition (now closed through April 5) does just that, depicting a unique moment in French history through its decoration.

This simple “Cup and Saucer” represents significant aspects of French history and culture. It was created by the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, first founded in 1740 in Vincennes, then moving to a larger location at Sèvres in 1756. The manufactory was supported by the monarchy, which helped to secure its status among the wealthy French nobility and internationally. Louis XV came to completely own the factory by 1759 and Sèvres would produce numerous royal table settings and decorative objects, along with diplomatic gifts for royalty, aristocracy, and ambassadors from around the world. The “Cup and Saucer” is a beautiful example of the high quality in design, decoration, and material that Sèvres was and continues to be known for. 

The imagery on the “Cup and Saucer” is a unique representation of a moment in French history. The three men depicted on the cup were ambassadors sent by Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in Southern India. The ambassadors arrived in 1788 with orders to obtain French support to help oust the British from India, who were a constant threat to Tipu and his father before. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette had created a society of aristocracy in Paris that was excited by the exoticism that these three men represented. They were paraded around the city and its surrounds, including the Sèvres manufactory, causing crowds and excitement wherever they were found. In response, various works of art were made to document their visit. This “Cup and Saucer” in the permanent collection is an example of a high-end souvenir, with a beautiful blue ground color and the three ambassadors depicted en grisaille (muted tones of grays and white) on the cup. Their names are written in gold on the saucer, along with collection of imagery, also en grisaille, that was thought to represent the foreign land of India, including a group of hookahs, palm trees, and turbans. 

The ambassadors failed in their mission, as France was already on the precipice of economic crisis and the upheaval of the entire society. The “Cup and Saucer” are a recording of a moment in history and a time in French culture that would no longer exist within a year, making the objects much more than a simply beautiful ware to drink one’s tea or coffee from.


IMAGE: Cup and Saucer, 1789 by Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the Ann and Henry Brunnier Collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 2.7.3ab

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