Dried plants have been used to perfume rooms for centuries. At the beginning of the 17th century, the French used to gather plants during the spring and summer, dry them and mix them with spices. The mixture called potpourri would later be placed in special perforated pots in order to add a pleasant scent to the area.
In the late 1750s, the National Manufactory of Sèvres started producing a particular model of potpourri vases which were in the shape of a ship. These vases called potpourri à vaisseau or potpourri en navire came in various colors and with a variety of decoration as is common for porcelain pieces produced by Sèvres. The ship-shaped vases were produced in several different sizes and made from a soft-paste porcelain. The first was designed in 1757 by Jean-Claude Duplessis who was a goldsmith, a sculptor, and the artistic director of the Sèvres manufactory.
The Sèvres potpourri vases in the shape of ships are among the most famous models created by the French manufactory. Because there were so few produced, they were sold only to the wealthiest and most important people. The eminent Madame de Pompadour and her brother the Marquis of Marigny were great admirers of the vases. Madame of Pompadour had two of the potpourri à vaisseau and her brother owned one.
The vases had one major flaw, though: the open-work in the lower body of the vase made it quite unstable. When the vases were put in the kiln, many of them collapsed. This is why only a small number were ever produced, and only ten of these vases survive today.
Ships were a very popular form for table pieces in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Sèvres vase’s form was inspired by the ship-shaped nef, a common table decoration in the homes of wealthy French people in that era. The boat-shaped vases were often sold as a part of a set with other pieces with a different shape.
Sèvres porcelain pieces were highly appreciated by the British. By the 1850s all of the ten surviving potpourri à vaisseau were a part of British collections. Today, five of the boat-shaped vases are still in the United Kingdom, four are in the United States and only one is located in France.
The shape was popular and copied. The English ceramics manufacturer Mintons made a replica for Georgina Elizabeth Ward, the Countess of Dudley, after the original Sèvres vase in her possession was sold by her husband in the late 19th century.
Three of the famous vases are at Waddesdon Manor in England, owned by the National Trust and managed by the Rothschild Foundation. The first vase was purchased in 1861 by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, a keen art collector. The sky blue vase’s front is decorated with flowers and there is a battle scene depicted on the back. The second vase is of dark blue color and the front has a scene of people outside a tavern sitting around a table.
The last vase in the Waddesdon’s collection is green, and although it is not certain where it came from, it is believed that it was bought from a Mrs. Yorke of Torquay. Another vase in England is a part of the Wallace Collection in London. It is a dark blue naval-themed vase made in 1761. The fifth vase is a part of the Royal collection. The green and blue vase used to be owned by Madame de Pompadour and was purchased by George IV in 1759.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a pink vase dating from 1757-58. The vase was a gift from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and it is presumed that it was owned by the Prince du Condé where it was displayed together with two of the elephant-head vases also made by Sèvres manufactory. The Frick Collection purchased a piece in 1916, and the Getty Museum in California has a pink and green vase. The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore houses the dark blue vase standing on gilt-wood feet which were added later.
The only vase remaining in France is located at the Louvre Museum and it is the one of the two that was owned by Madame de Pompadour. She bought the vase in 1753 and used it to decorate her bed chamber. The background color is pink with green and blue accents. This shade of pink was later called Rose Pompadour.