The Story of Painters & Gilders & Their Marks
Rosalind Savill provides an enlightening overview of how porcelain painters and gilders functioned overall within the culture of the Vincennes and Sèvres factories (1988, 3:991–93). Many of these individuals came to the factory having already established themselves in diverse professions, often with an emphasis on decorating: some had worked as fan painters or “cardboard-box decorators”; others were already experienced porcelain painters at factories such as Saint-Cloud or Chantilly. But some came to the profession from completely different backgrounds, such as engineering, military service, medicine, or dancing. And yet others actually arrived at Vincennes or Sèvres as young children, starting work there as factory apprentices as young as age 9 or 10.
The factory became more than just an employer to them; it was a community and a home, often providing lodgings, health care, and a pension. Members of the community usually stayed at the factory for their entire lives, and tended to intermarry: often the painters’ wives were also employed as “flower painters,” and their children tended to work at the porcelain factory as well. The tightknit quality of the community and the close factory-employer relationship also led to a certain lack of freedom. Strict secrecy rules were observed, as well as regulations against “undertaking illicit decoration at home”; those workers who disobeyed were “pursued or fined” (3:991).
Many of these painters were also color inventors: they created their own pigments and ground colors. At the outset of their careers, they often started by working only in monochrome, then progressed to the use of complex polychrome palettes.
The painted marks found on porcelain from the Vincennes and Sèvres Manufactories included both the standard factory mark and a mark (or marks) indicating the name of the painter and/or gilder. The factory mark itself consisted of the French royal monogram: a pair of blue, interlaced Ls (one facing forward, the other reversed), well exemplified by Slide 8_Mark. This was the standard mark for soft-paste porcelain. The fuzzy outlines of this particular mark might be explained by the fact that it may have been placed on the plate before the glaze, as was characteristic of pieces painted with bleu lapis ground color (lapis blue); this caused marks to run at the edges (Eriksen and De Bellaigue 1987, 145).
Starting in approximately 1770, if a crown was placed atop the monogram, that indicated the porcelain was hard-paste. Such a crown can be seen in Slide 50_Mark, which is on a hard-paste bowl (écuelle) in the Seattle Art Museum collection (SAM, no. 2005.178.).
Within the royal monogram a so-called “date letter” can often be seen, which corresponds to the year the piece was decorated. The letter “A” refers to 1753, “B” indicates 1754, and so on. This date-letter system is well illustrated by Slide 17_Mark, which contains an “F” within the monogram, indicating the year 1758. This system continued until 1778, when the factory began using double letters. An example of the double date letter is Slide 58_Mark, seen towards the top of this page, which contains a “GG,” indicating that the piece was decorated in 1784.
In addition to the monogram and date letters, painters’ marks began appearing in 1753; most gilders’ marks did not appear until the 1770s. A good example of both is on the plate from the Catherine the Great Service in Slide 56_Mark, which shows both the painter’s mark for Jean-Baptiste Tandart (three dots), and the gilders' mark for Michel-Barnabé Chauvaux (cross-hatched lines).
However intriguing these marks are, a view into a long-ago creative life, several scholars have emphasized that these marks were not “expressions of artistic pride” but rather administrative: “Marks were intended first and foremost to facilitate management control” (Eriksen and De Bellaigue 1987, 147).
Mysteries remain: Multiple workers contributed to the decoration, including the layer of the ground color (poseur de fonds), one or more painters, and a gilder, yet multiple marks are not usually present, especially in the early years. Meanwhile, why did some painters not use marks at all? Eriksen (148) notes that around 385 painters and gilders were employed by the factory over the course of the eighteenth century, yet only about 195 marks are known. A related issue worth exploring would be why the women employed by the factory rarely had their own marks (about 68 worked there, but only about six or seven had marks).
The specific marks used by painters and gilders are also often mysterious. Aside from the obvious use of their own initials or references to their names, some artists used marks that were puns, or musical references, “while others chose various apparently inexplicable symbols (including an anchor, a star, a hatchet, a comma, and an exclamation mark)” (Savill 1998, 3:993). In Slide 23_Mark, the “anchor” mark can be seen on the teapot, indicating the work of Charles Buteux.
References: Savill 1988, 3:991–93; Eriksen and De Bellaigue 1987, 145–78. (The summary of painters’ lives in relation to the factory is especially indebted to the history in Savill).
Read biographies of selected painters and gilders represented in the Fritzsche Collection: