Unlike the Chinoiserie decorations in vogue at the Sèvres factory from the time of its creation, this statuette is not a fantasy figure but a genuine portrait – that of the Chinese emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). It was based on a watercolor portrait by Giuseppe Panzi, a Jesuit father at the court of Peking, and was loaned to the factory by the secretary of state Henri Bertin, an important client who did not hesitate to influence the firm’s artistic choices by suggesting decorations and supplying models. In 1776, Bertin, a scholar with a passion for China, published his Memoirs Concerning the History, Science, Arts, Manners and Customs of the Chinese, with a frontispice featuring a printed representation of Qianlong’s portrait. This watercolored portrait also served as a model for paintings on porcelain; in 1776, when the biscuit portrait was produced, a first porcelain plaque, painted by Charles-Éloi Asselin, was sold to Louis XVI for the considerable sum of 480 pounds, and was followed by two others. The figure of the Emperor of China, probably created in the year 1775, was attributed to the sculptor Josse-François-Joseph Le Riche, a modeler at Sèvres from 1757 to 1801 (though there is nothing in the archives to confirm this attribution). The first biscuit figure was sold in August of the following year to the Duchesse de Mazarin for seventy-two pounds, a relatively modest sum due to the simplicity of the figure which was made using only seven molds, whereas the most ambitious group figures could require up to a hundred. The factory earned prestige for its production of small figures made of a new ceramic material, left in unglazed “biscuit” form, with a finely polished white surface evoking marble. From the middle of the century onward, this production developed to such an extent that in 1757 the Sèvres factory appointed a director of sculpture, a post held until 1766 by Étienne-Maurice Falconet (1716-1791); he was succeeded by the painter Jean-Jacques Bachelier (1724-1806) until 1773, then by the sculptor Louis-Simon Boizot (1743-1809) who held the post until his death. Sèvres figurines were exported and imitated throughout Europe. Despite its prestigious principal buyers – Queen Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI’s aunt Madame Adélaïde, the Duchesse de Durfort and the ambassador of Sardinia – the Emperor of China figure was not a great success, and only thirteen copies were sold. This rather austere portrait of a foreign ruler with an expression of ironic wisdom had probably disconcerted a clientele accustomed to more friendly looking figures, but the factory continued to produce likenesses of princes from far flung lands; in 1787, Louis-Simon Boizot modeled a full-length figure of the young Prince of French Cochinchina, “to spark curiosity with something new.” The first copy was sold to the king at the end of the year, for the same price as the figure of Qianlong.
Tamara Préaud, “Sèvres, la Chine et les ‘Chinoiseries’ au XVIIIe siècle,” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, no. 47, 1989, pp. 39-52.
Louis-Simon Boizot (1743-1809): sculpteur du roi et directeur de l’atelier de sculpture à la Manufacture de Sèvres, exhibition catalogue, Versailles, Musée Lambinet, 2001, Paris, Somogy, 2001.