The 1878 Paris Universelle Exposition was a prodigious celebration of Liberty, and the present pair of Sèvres porcelain vases was at its heart. Larger than any of its predecessors, the 66-acre exhibition sought to showcase the international advancements of Industry and Art in a new Republican era of peace and innovation. The artisans of post Franco-Prussian War France challenged the nations of the world to display their cultural and mechanical achievements to their best advantage and be awarded according to their merit.
Liberty illuminating the World became everlastingly symbolized by the unveiling of the head and shoulders of Bartholdi's now famous work ‘The Statue of Liberty,’ and the city of Paris earned its name as the ‘City of Lights’ in large part due to the illumination of the avenue de l'Opera by a dynamo powering electric street lamps never before seen on this scale. From May 1st to November 10th, luminaries such as Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Alvin Edison publically displayed new inventions like the telephone and phonograph; concurrently literary leaders like Victor Hugo formed a Congress for the Protection of Literary Property, the naissance of the international copyright system. Thirteen million visitors were welcomed to the Paris exhibition clambering aboard tramways and on a panoramic adventure aboard Henri Giffard’s enormous hot air balloon.
THE ARTISTIC DIRECTION
In the world of ceramic sculpture, this new Republican idealism was championed by the artistic director Albert Ernest Carrier-Belleuse. Early in his career, Carrier-Belleuse trained at the École des Beaux-Arts and then moved to the Petite École to study decorative arts. In the mid-19th century, he designed metalwork and ceramics in England for firms such as Wedgwood and Mintons and then returned to France to exhibit large scale sculpture at the Paris Salons. Here he gained the attention of Emperor Napoléon III, who employed him in the massive public project of rebuilding Paris.
In 1875, backed by The Ministry of Beaux-Arts and appointed to the Commission de Perfectionnement, Carrier-Belleuse was named Directeur des Travaux d’Art at the Manufactory de Sèvres. Charged to reinvigorate the Manufactory, he set on a course of radical change. His prestige as a sculptor, experience in the industrial arts, ability to coordinate large ateliers and his years as a professor made him an ideal choice to redirect the efforts of the artists at Sèvres. The 1878 Exposition was the grand opportunity to reclaim the firm's prowess. Working toward this goal meant several years of preparation. The host nation’s porcelain display would be housed in the Hall of Honor (Vestibule d’honneur). This coveted position was tangential to the display of the crown jewels, and together they were to become the most visited destination at the fair. Prior to his appointment, technical advancements had equated to aggrandizing the scale of production. Carrier-Belleuse now sought to marry this race for grandeur with a fresh harmonized design sense. Under his direction the newly Nationalized Manufactory of porcelain at Sèvres realized an unprecedented level of artistic freedom.
An extraordinarily detailed Artisans Report of 1878, (Ibid.) faithfully records and celebrates the present vases, "A pair of tall vases of graceful form are decorated in a novel and singular manner by Ch. Cabau; round the lower part of the vase he has painted a collection of large and variously tinted leaves, continuing them up to the neck of the vase by branches of smaller leaves, and binding them together near the top and bottom of the vase by straps or bands with elaborate decoration, the effect of the whole being very pleasing."
The pair is also twice documented among the archival records preserved at Sèvres. Upon entry in the storerooms, the vases are succinctly described in registry Vv8, 63.82 of 31 July 1878 -- 2 Vases Balustre pour torchères 1ere, fond sous email peinture de Ch. Cabau, Blanchard; and again on exit from the Exposition in a registry titled, ‘concessions, attributions et cadeaux diplomatiques . 1878-1884’, Vaa4 folio 276 verso of October 1878, subtitled, "Livré à la Loterie Nationale de l'Exposition Universelle de 1878", 63.82- - 2 Vases Balustre pour torchères fond - couverte fleurs et plantes ornemanisées – 11,500 francs.
The 1878: Exposition Universelle de 1878 à Paris—Catalogue official des produits exposés par les Manufacturer nationales de France- Sèvres, les Gobelin, Beauvais, also records –under the subtitle Porcelaine Dure (Hard Paste Porcelain) and Porcelaines peintes au feu de moufle (Painted porcelains fired in a muffle kiln) 103 (ExpU) -- Deux vases balustre pour torchères.—Plantes ornesmanisées; decoration compose et peinte au demi-grand feu par M. C. Cabau, sur fond de pâtes colorées execute en incrustation et en relief, par M. A. Blanchard. Hauteur, 1m15; diameter, 0m50 (the height of the present vases prior to mounting).
Based on the archival record and on the cyphers and signatures on the vases themselves, the following well documented exhibition artists can be credited with the manufacture of the vases:
• Eugène-Charles Cabau, born 1825, is recorded at Sèvres as a painter of flowers (1847-1885)
• Alexandre Blanchard, born 1848, is recorded at Sèvres as a modeler and decorator (1867-1901)
• Jules-Constant-Jean-Baptiste Peyre is recorded as the chief designer of forms and decoration (1842-1848; 1856-1871)
• Renard Hubert-Constantin is recorded as a turner and as the chief of fabrication (1847-1892)
The model, ‘Vase forme Balustre’ is recorded with and without mounts, originally designed by J. Peyre circa 1849, the model was adapted by his son A. Peyre and thence titled ‘Vase forme Balustre pour Torchères’. For closely related examples of this form, see B. Ducrot, Porcelaines et Terres de Sèvres, Catalogue musée National du château de Compiègne, p. 274, for a pair of fond agate vases painted with flowers and foliage by Eugène-Charles Cabau in 1862 and exhibited at the Paris Universelle Exposition of 1867. This pair of vases then entered the château de Compiègne on the 3rd of November 1868.
Also see B. Ducrot, op .cit. p. 270-272, no. 212 for a set of four ormolu-mounted pâte-sur-pâte celadon-ground vases of the same form decorated by Jules Gély in 1862. This set was exhibited at the London Industrial Exhibition of the same year and then entered the royal inventories of France. Over the ensuing years, they were displayed as a set or in pairs at the Tuilleries Palace, château de Compiègne, the l’Eysée and the Musée d’Orsay. See the Musée d'Orsay Catalogue sommaire illustré des arts décoratifs, pp. 196-197, where the bronze doré mounts on this pair are described as inscribed by the Maison F. Barbedienne (Garde-Meuble. Livré 181).