Catherine the Great Service


Plate from the Catherine the Great Service (assiette), 1782, slide 56

The "Plate" (assiette) from the Catherine the Great Service (1786, slide 56) is part of a celebrated dinner- and dessert-service commissioned in 1776 by Catherine the Great (aka Ekaterina II, 1729–96, Empress of Russia from 1762–96). According to Rosalind Savill, this was one of the most costly services ever created, and comprised of 800 pieces. Prince Ivan Sergeyevich Baryatinsky (1740–1811), the Russian Ambassador to France at that time, took charge of the commission in France, and personally supervised some of the details of decoration at the Sèvres factory; Dawson notes that the pieces were redesigned multiple times to suit Catherine’s demands. This design of the service reflects the vogue for neoclassicism, as well as Catherine the Great’s passion for both classical antiquity and particularly “the lapidary arts,” which she called “cameo fever” (Savill 1988, 2:763).

As exemplified by the plate in Slide 56, Catherine’s monogram played a central role in the design: at the center of the plate is a circular medallion, enclosed by a tooled gilt band containing her initials, E II (for Ekaterina II), topped with a royal crown. The letter E is composed of flowers, the Roman numerals are gilded, and the entire monogram is encircled with laurel and myrtle branches. This same monogram (E II) was used as a mark by the Imperial Porcelain Factory of St. Petersburg.


The turquoise ground color is known as bleu céleste, and was meant to imitate turquoise stone. Surrounding the central blue well is a circular frieze of gilded scrolls, modeled after the décor of the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome. Such scrolls are known as rinceaux (defined as “a neoclassical motif of running scrolls with flowers and foliage,” Savill 1988, 3:1178). Dawson and Savill note that these richly gilt scrolls were created by applying two layers of gold “to achieve a sufficiently thick surface for the deep tooling, chasing, and polishing” (Savill, cited in Dawson 1994, 143). Above and below the frieze of gilded scrolls are two white bands decorated with flower garlands linked by husks.

Set into the rinceaux frieze are cameo-heads and classical scenes en grisaille, evoking classical bas-reliefs. The scenes for the service are different depending on the object, but overall depict figures from Greek mythology or Greek and Roman history. The scenes and cameo heads are framed in oval reserves against a reddish-brown ground, which was meant to evoke the color of agate. These cameo heads were created using an unusual technique called “transfer-printing,” introduced by Nicolas-Pierre Berthevin in 1765 (Savill 1988, 2:764).

According to Roth and Le Corbeiller, one of the scenes (on the left side of the plate in the picture, with three figures) depicts “Hannibal vowing to destroy Rome” (2000, 281). Dawson illustrates a very similar plate at the British Museum from the same service, dated 1778 (Dawson 1994, no. 121, plate 20, pp. 141–44). Later the Sèvres factory made many replicas in imitation of the Catherine service: “Madame du Barry purchased a teapot in this style in July 1779, and another one in 1788” (Roth and Le Corbeiller 2000, 281).


Mark for Plate from the Catherine the Great Service (assiette, slide 56), 1782

The plate has a mark for Jean-Baptiste Tandart aîné (1729–1816, active 1754–1800 or 1803), who was one of the “most skilled flower-painters” of his era (Eriksen and De Bellaigue 1987, 96), as well as a gilder’s mark for Michel-Barnabé Chauvaux aîné (also known as Chauveaux, active ca. 1753–88), who was a gilder and painter of ornaments.

References: Savill 1988, 2:762–82, 3:1020–21, 3:1070; Dawson 1994, 141–44; Roth and Le Corbeiller 2000, 281–83; Tardy 1981, 533, 566; Eriksen and De Bellaigue 1987, 96.