Sèvres porcelain plate from the first Egyptian Service

Sèvres porcelain plate from the first Egyptian Service

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TITLE: Sèvres porcelain plate from the first Egyptian Service
MAKER: Sèvres Manufactory
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: ceramic, porcelain (overall material)
MEASUREMENTS: D. 9 ⁵⁄₁₆ in. 23.6 cm.
PLACE MADE: Sèvres, France
DATE MADE: 1804-1806
Domestic Furnishing
Industry and Manufacturing
COLLECTOR/ DONOR: Alfred Duane Pell
MARKS: M. Imp. le Sèvres, Imperial eagle, printed in red. Stamped with the letters V.D. for the gilder Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Vandé.
The plate is from the first Egyptian Service produced at the Sèvres Manufactory, an ambitious and innovatory project begun in the first year of the Empire (1804) when it was believed that elaborate porcelain services could enhance the prestige of the new imperial regime of Napoleon I. The deep blue ground, the gold ornament, and the monochrome images in sepia after the engravings in Baron Dominique-Vivant Denon’s Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte published in 1802, were startling enough, but the depiction of ancient and modern Egypt marked Napoleon’s cultural achievement on his Egyptian campaign, even though it was a military disaster. The subject on the plate seen here is of a group of youths described by Denon as “the Barabras or people from the upper countries, inhabitants of Nubia, and the frontiers of Abyssinia”, an example of Denon’s observation of modern Egypt in 1798 to 1799. The artist responsible for the painting on this service was Jacques François Joseph Swebach (1769-1823), who was permitted to sign his name, unusual at the time, and it can be seen on the lower right of the plate.
In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte sailed to Egypt with a large team of scientists, engineers, artists, and scholars appended to his army of about 20,000 troops who occupied Lower Egypt and chased the Mamluk Turks*, then rulers of the country, into Upper Egypt. Known as the savants, these men studied and recorded all that they saw of both ancient and modern Egypt. As an artist, art collector, and antiquarian, Dominique-Vivant Denon marveled at the sites of Egyptian antiquity and recorded in drawings everything that he could get down on paper while traveling with a battalion of the French army into Upper Egypt. His drawings, later engraved and published in the Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, are still a valuable record of Egypt’s ancient sites before the archaeological excavations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the construction of the first and second Aswan Dams.
Egypt fascinated the Greeks and Romans centuries before this plate was made in France. The Romans were great producers and consumers of things, and through their knowledge of Egyptian culture they “Egyptianized” their own villas, temples, and grand monuments with objects taken from Egypt itself, or made in imitation of Egyptian models. Through the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire evidence of ancient Egypt slipped into obscurity, even in Rome itself as the city of imperial grandeur crumbled into ruin. Not until the European Renaissance, beginning in the fifteenth century, was the earlier fascination with Egypt revived, and by the late eighteenth century the process of rediscovering ancient Egypt was greatly enhanced by travelers from Europe documenting and publishing their experiences. Designers, artisans, and manufacturers were quick to pick up on the mystifying motifs, hieroglyphs, and iconic remains from Egyptian antiquity. The work of Denon and his fellow artists, scientists, surveyors and engineers, followed by the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs in the early-to-mid 1820s by the French linguist Jean François Champollion (1790-1832) brought to life the academic pursuit of Egyptology from which we have learned so much. Their discoveries also intensified interest in ancient Egypt that sparked the popular movement known as Egyptomania.
Napoleon did not use the service from which this plate originates. In 1808 it was given to Tsar Alexander I of Russia, a diplomatic gift following the treaty of Tilsit signed between Alexander and Napoleon on July 7th 1807 on the border of Russian and Prussian territory. The service is now in the State Museum of Ceramics and the 18th Century Kuskovo Estate, Moscow.
This plate belongs to the Alfred Duane Pell collection in the National Museum of American History. Before Pell (1864-1924) became an Episcopalian clergyman quite late in life, he and his wife Cornelia Livingstone Crosby Pell (1861-1938) travelled widely, and as they travelled they collected European porcelains, silver, and furniture. Pell came from a wealthy family and he purchased the large William Pickhardt Mansion on 5th Avenue and East 74th Street in which to display his vast collection. The Smithsonian was one of several institutions to receive substantial bequests from the Reverend Pell which laid the foundation for their collections of European applied arts.
* Mamluk. Originally an army of slaves recruited in the 9th century Abbasid Caliphate (Mamluk means “owned” or “slave” in Arabic), the Mamluks (or Mamelukes) became powerful military rulers in the Islamic world, notably so in Egypt until 1811.
Further reading
English translations of the Voyage, Travels in Lower and Upper Egypt, published in 1802 and 1803, are accessible on Google Books. See also Terence M. Russel, The Discovery of Egypt: Vivant Denon’s Travels with Napoleon’s Army, Stroud, UK: The History Press, 2005.
Bob Brier, Napoleon in Egypt, exhibition catalog Hillwood Art Museum, Brookville, New York: 1990.
Juan Cole, Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East, Basingstoke UK and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
James Stevens Curl, Egyptomania The Egyptian Revival: a Recurring Theme in the History of Taste, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994.
Liana Paredes, 2009, Sèvres Then and Now: Tradition and Innovation in Porcelain 1750-2000.
Egyptomania: Egypt in Western Art 1730-1930, exhibition catalog, National Gallery of Canada with the Louvre, Paris, 1994.
Currently not on view
Object Name
Object Type
date made
place made
France: Île-de-France, Sevres
Physical Description
"gold" (overall color)
green (overall color)
purple (overall color)
red (overall color)
white (overall color)
monochrome, brown (overall surface decoration color name)
ceramic, porcelain (overall material)
overall: 1 1/4 in x 9 5/16 in; 3.175 cm x 23.65375 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
See more items in
Cultural and Community Life: Ceramics and Glass
Industry & Manufacturing
Domestic Furnishings
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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