This exotic model of 'vase /ga t/gete d'elephant duplessis, as it was referred to in the 1814 Inventory at S/gevres, was conceived by Jean-Claude Duplessis p/gere, principal designer of the manufactory at S/gevres around 1756. Adapted in profile from the vase urne antique of 1755, the vase /ga t/cete d'/ael/aephant first appears at S/gevres in 1757, with prices ranging from 360 livres with rose and green ground decorated with chinoiserie figures to 960 livres with a green ground and children. This model enjoyed enduring popularity and was still recorded as late as 1773, although production probably ceased in the mid-1760's.
Produced in three different models (1756, 1757 and 1760), the S/gevres porcelain vases were sold both singly and in pairs, as well as in garnitures of three and five vases. In 1757 pairs were bought by Madame de Pompadour and the marchand-mercier Lazare Duvaux, whilst Madame Lair bought a single vase in 1760, the baron de Travers acquired a three-piece garniture in 1773 and five-piece garnitures were bought by the prince de Cond/ae in 1758 and Louis XV in 1760.
Whilst the exact source of inspiration for this model is unknown, Dauterman has suggested that it may derive from a Meisssen interpretation of an Oriental shape (in 1733 and 1735 Kaendler designed candelabra with elephant's heads). Interestingly an elephant garny d'un chandellier en arbuisseau d'email a deux bobeches de cuivre dor/ae was in Orry de Fulvy's Inventory of 1751 (Savill, ibid.). As Savill also remarked, the neck rim recalls the description of an elephant's trunk published in 1755 9'qui s'/aelargissoit comme le haut d'un vase').
Certainly the fashion for exotic ornament in the late 1750s can be seen in tapestries emblematic of the Four Continents woven at the Gobelins, ormolu-mounted objets de luxe and even in architecture. Indeed the engineer Ribart de Chamoust even designed a mounument for the top of the Champs-Elys/aees, where the present Arc de Triomphe now stands, entirely in the form of an elephant! This extravagant scheme included a great central staircase, rooms of entertainment including a Palm Room and a dining room, and a waterfall above a grotto issuing from the elephant's snout (illustrated in J. Whitehead, The French Interior in the Eighteenth Century, London, 1992, p.58).
It is therefore very possible that these vases were originally conceived as part of a set emblematic of Africa from a series of the Continents, as Fame's chariot drawn by an elephant personifies Africa in Plutarch. This hypothesis is perhaps supported by the fact that a pair of identical vases, but with rhinoceros as opposed to elephants heads, is in a Private Collection. A further three-piece garniture, the central vase with rhinoceros head and the flanking vases with elephants, was sold by Percival Farquhar at Parke Bernet, New York, 9 December 1955, lot 328; these are now in a Private Collection in Paris. Finally, a pair of slightly later Louis XVI ormolu-mounted lily-spray candelabra with related elephant-mask handles and blue porcelain bodies, reputedly executed by Pierre Gouthière for Marie-Antoinette, was acquired by Mayer Amschel de Rothschild for Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire and are illustrated in 'Three French Reigns', Exhibition Catalogue, 1933, p.124. These are now in the collection of the Earl of Rosebery at Dalmeny House, East Lothian.
Jean-Claude-Thomas Chambellan-Duplessis (d.1773) was the son of the sculptor, bronzier and artistic director of the Vincennes-Sèvres Manufactory. From 1752, he assisted his father in creating models. On 12 June 1765 he became maître fondeur en terre et sable, having, as was customary at the time mastered the disciplines of drawing and sculpture, and it is extremely probably that the mounts on these vases were executed at around that time.
The 1777 the Almanach des Artistes described him as a bon dessinateur, travaille d'après ses dessins. He became the appointed bronzier to the Sèvres Manufactory and was replaced after his death by Pierre-Philippe Thomire.