One of the French rooms in the Huntington Art Gallery just got a little fancier. Arranged among paintings like the Knitter Asleep by Jean Baptiste Greuze and The Country Dance by Jean-Antoine Watteau are 19 ceramic works, including teapots, pitchers, apothecary jars, sugar boxes, and tea caddies made by the finest factories in 17th- and 18th-century France.
Recent gifts to The Huntington from art patron, collector, and Huntington trustee emerita MaryLou Boone, the elaborately decorated works of functional art are captivating as individual objects and, together, illustrate the history of the art form.
The French coveted “hard-paste” porcelain that had been developed in China, but the recipe was unknown in Europe until the late 18th century. In the meantime, craftsmen developed other types of ceramics to feed the growing bourgeoisie’s taste for porcelain-like tableware and containers for medicines and makeup. One type was faïence, a tin-glazed earthenware characterized by colorful ornament or narrative scenes on a white-glaze ground. The other is “soft-paste” porcelain, which is a little more porcelain-like in its lightness and thinness and features a warm-white clay body and a delicate palette of pinks, greens, and blues.
The new installation shows examples of both ceramic types, and from various factories, so you can witness the evolution of the practice during the period.
You might take a liking to these predecessors of the astonishingly lavish Sévres porcelain pieces that are on view in the bright corner gallery two rooms down. There’s a soft and endearing quality to the texture and lines of the Boone pieces that probably contribute to their popularity among connoisseurs.
Chief curator of European art Catherine Hess says she’s delighted to get the installation on view. “We are thrilled to put on display this marvelous gift from MaryLou Boone not only because the objects themselves are so delectable but also they link so perfectly with other parts of our collections. They help us imagine the dining, dressing, and other customs of France at the time.”
For example, hygiene was a new imperative, and people wanted white, clean-looking hygienic apothecary jars instead of earth-tone clay containers. There’s a densely decorated example in the gallery, with a French artist’s conception of the Chinese countryside depicted on the side.
Hess suggests that if you crave more French culture after seeing The Huntington’s new display, check out the exhibition “Paris: Life and Luxury” at the Getty Center through August 7.
CAPTIONS: Tray with Handles, ca. 1730, Rouen, France, grand feu faïence; and Sugar Box, ca. 1746, Vincennes, France, soft-paste porcelain. Gifts of MaryLou Boone. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Thea M. Page is art writer and special projects manager at The Huntington.