French Revolution Teapot

This teapot comes from the Alfred Duane Pell Collection in the National Museum of American History, and it is not the kind of luxury article we usually associate with the Sèvres Manufactory. In 1795, following the fall and execution of Maximillian Robespierre, France put behind it the horrific year known as the Reign of Terror (September 1793-July 1794), but the country was in a state of economic ruin. The Sèvres Manufactory, situated to the west of Paris towards Versailles, struggled through financial collapse and produced porcelain that was far less ornate, and therefore affordable to people who were not members of the nobility, most of whom had either fled into hiding or lost their lives to the guillotine.
The Sèvres Manufactory was then a close community of craft workers, mechanics, and artists, all of whom lived in housing on the manufactory site or close to it. Now a suburb of Paris, eighteenth-century Sèvres was rural, and a better place to live than in the crowded and unsanitary quarters of the city. During the old order (ancien régime) prior to the Revolution that began in 1789, the Manufactory was under royal ownership, and male workers were exempt from military service. Given that the Manufactory was owned by the monarch, and therefore symbolized the institution hated and overthrown by the revolutionaries it is astounding it survived at all. In the chaos that ensued once the Revolution began most Sèvres workers stayed were they were and continued to produce porcelain.
Painted on its surface in enamels colors on one side is the emblem for liberty, the Phrygian cap seen resting on the triangle of equity. The scarlet Phrygian cap adopted during the French Revolution as an emblem of liberty, remains closely associated with France today. The liberty cap has its origins in antiquity with the Phrygian cap seen on this teapot representing to the Greeks the people of Phrygia in Asia Minor, present day Turkey, and it is recognized by its peak, softly folded forwards over the head. It is thought that the cap may have been worn by Phrygians taken captive by the Greeks. In revolutionary America, and in French engravings of heroes of the American Revolution a red soft-peaked cap known as the pileus represented freedom from British tyranny. Of ancient Roman origin the pileus was worn by former slaves given their freedom under the Roman system of manumission. Representing both the captive and the freed slave the Phrygian cap and the Roman pileus became interchangeable in the eighteenth-century emblem of liberty, but for the young American Republic the pileus in particular was a troubling image for those who contested the existence of slavery in the southern states. On the other side of the teapot is the emblem for the authority of the First French Republic, established in 1792. Known as the Fasces of Roman antiquity this emblem consists of a bundle of wooden rods from which an axe head protrudes representing the unity and judicial authority of the Republic.
The teapot is made of hard-paste porcelain, which entered production at Sèvres in the 1770s, although the soft-paste porcelain so characteristic of early Sèvres continued in use until the early 1800s. The lid is a much later replacement for the missing original.
Derek E. Ostergard (ed.), Tamara Préaud et al., The Sévres Porcelain Manufactory: Alexandre Brongniart and the Triumph of Art and Industry, 1800-1847, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997.
Susan Dunn, Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light, New York, Faber & Faber Inc., 1999.
Yvonne Korshak, ‘The Liberty Cap as a Revolutionary Symbol in America and France’ in Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Vol 1 No. 2 (Autumn 1987) pp. 52-69.
The Liberty Cap in the Art of the U.S. Capitol,
Object Name
date made
Physical Description
hard-paste porcelain (overall material)
polychrome enamels and gold (overall color)
floral swags and French revolutionary emblems (overall style)
overall: 4 3/8 in x 4 1/4 in; 11.1125 cm x 10.795 cm
place made
France: Île-de-France, Sèvres
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Domestic Furnishings
See more items in
Home and Community Life: Ceramics and Glass
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
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