The Diffusion of 'Porcelaine des Indes' in Eighteenth-Century France: from Lorient to Paris and beyond, 1720-1775
Throughout the Eighteenth Century, the activities of the European East India Companies brought new commodities from South and East Asia into European households, marking the golden age of commercial and cultural exchanges between Europe and Asia. In France, Chinese porcelain, imported and sold by the Compagnie des Indes through the port cities of Nantes and Lorient, spread throughout the country over the course of the century, adapting to French tastes and demand. Although the material and aesthetic properties of this porcelaine des Indes have been widely discussed by art historians, the commercial and economic networks it highlights have received considerably less attention in France. Focusing on the ‘Golden Years’ (1720-1775) of the Compagnie des Indes, this paper sets out to retrace the diffusion of Chinese porcelain from the port of Lorient to the commercial scene of Eighteenth-Century Paris, in order to identify patterns of trade, circulation and consumption. It does so by relying on a careful analysis of the company’s auction notes from 1764-1775, in order to reveal the geographical origins and identity of the porcelain buyers, as well as the type and quantity of porcelain sold. The processes it thus highlights – from the auction sales of Lorient to the commercialisation of porcelain by the Parisian merchants – reveal that the diffusion of a global commodity such as porcelain relied on a complex ensemble of intertwined commercial networks; in parallel, they also underline the fact that little evidence remains to sustain the assumption that porcelain had already penetrated the lower classes of Eighteenth-Century Paris. Unlike in Britain or in the Dutch Republic, porcelain in France remained a luxurious commodity enjoyed exclusively by the wealthy well into the Nineteenth Century.