Devoted to the decorative arts of seventeenth- and especially eighteenth-century France, The Wrightsman Galleries (522–529, 531–533, and 545–547) display the Museum's holdings of furniture, Savonnerie carpets, gilt bronze, Sèvres porcelain, silver, and gold boxes. Since the 1963 acquisition of the paneling from the Hôtel de Varengeville and the Palais Paar with funds given by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, these rooms have borne the Wrightsmans' name.
Furniture embellished with variously shaped, hand-painted plaques from the royal porcelain manufactory at Sèvres is among the most distinctive of French eighteenth-century decorative arts. Intended for the private use of their elite owners, many of the pieces reflect the growing popularity of letter writing—even the jewelry coffers displayed here feature retractable writing surfaces and storage for related implements.
Creating such luxurious furniture required the participation of many craftsmen, including cabinetmakers, metalworkers, locksmiths, and porcelain painters, whose contributions were coordinated by dealers in luxury goods known as marchands merciers. The idea for porcelain-mounted furniture is thought to have originated in the 1750s with these entrepreneurs, who were skilled at shaping the tastes of their wealthy clientele.
In 1958 the Samuel H. Kress Foundation donated to the Museum seventeen pieces of Sèvres-mounted furniture that were originally part of the Hillingdon Collection, amassed by the London banker Sir Charles Mills (1792–1880). Additional pieces given by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman have made the Metropolitan the world’s largest repository of such work.
The French royal porcelain manufactory outgrew its original quarters at Vincennes and moved in 1756 to Sèvres, where it continued to experiment with daring new forms and colors. The rich palette of enamel colors developed at Sèvres was enhanced by elaborate gilding, achieved by working the gold with fine tools to create detailed patterns. As soft-paste porcelain is difficult to manipulate and fire, the medium presents numerous challenges, rendering the manufactory's achievements all the more impressive.
Bold, innovative models, such as the elephant vases displayed in this gallery, were regularly introduced in the realm of decorative objects. In contrast, the forms employed for Sèvres dining services remained consistent from their introduction in the 1750s until the late eighteenth century. Novel decorations steadily appeared, however, on both ornamental objects and useful wares, reflecting the manufactory's reliance on leading artists to provide designs for the factory's painters.
Extraordinarily costly and fragile, objects produced at Sèvres were prized as status symbols and exchanged as diplomatic gifts by their royal and aristocratic owners. Although some possess seemingly functional forms, many were intended solely for display.