Friday, 26 December 2014

Marie-Antoinette's "bol-sein"

In August Kate Moss celebrated her 40th birthday in suitably newsworthy fashion with a champagne coupe modelled on her left breast, after the so-called bol-sein of the "fun-loving" Marie-Antoinette.

The 18th-century bol-sein referred to was not in fact a champagne glass but a milk cup, part of a service in porcelain commissioned from the designer Jean-Jacques Langrenée at the Manufacture Royale de Sèvres in 1787 for Marie-Antoinette's "pleasure dairy" at Rambouillet.  The service was "Etruscan" in style and the concept loosely based on Greek "mastos" cups.  A deep, milky white porcelain bowl was set in a footed stand in the shape of goat's heads, finished at the bottom with a mound of clay in the unmistakable shape of a human nipple. The emphasis is on natural fecundity rather than sexual titillation - and the effect is to say the least disturbing.

 Porcelain bowl in the shape of a woman's breast on a stand with goat's heads
("tétons avec ses pieds à têtes de chèvre")
There were originally four bowls; two are now in the  in the Musée National de Céramique, Sèvres and a third in the Museo Duca di Martina, Naples. 

The cultural significance of 18th-century French porcelain has lately become the subject of a splendid book, Christine A. Jones's Shapely bodies (2013).  This is what she has to say about the piece:

Marie-Antoinette's milk mug became known, bluntly, as a bol-sein, or breast cup. Tinted glazes of flesh and rose, like the heat of Boucher's brush on Madame de Pompadour's cheeks, do the work of the imagination to give the breast a warm-blooded glow  The drinking vessel reposes on the head of reverential goats molded into a tripod whose accents pick up the nipple's hue.  Echoing in miniature the idealism of a royal pleasure dairy, the cup served fresh cow milk as though directly from an organic source.  Both site and vessel exposed what court fashion removed from view: the laiterie d'agrément purported to unveil the labor behind the nourishment that aristocrats took for granted, whilst the breast cup revealed one of the body's biological functions in a material typically reserved for more dignified subject matter. (p.238-9)

The bowl no doubt expressed Marie-Antoinette's innocent delight in a sanitized nature and "mediated sensuality", but in hindsight its smacks of a tasteless and  irresponsible intimacy.  The rumour that she had actually modelled for the piece à la Moss, though baseless, was a longstanding one. As Christine Jones writes, "No one would have convinced the populace that Marie-Antoinette had stood naked for a marble cutter, silversmith, or even a reputable painter.  But history voyeuristically adored the idea of the queen placing her bosom in the plastered hands of a porcelainier" (p.239) One thinks of all those pornographic libelles which so damaged the royal reputation.....

Kate Moss is only the latest in a line of would-be imitators, starting with the Empress Josephine. Lately the Sèvres bowl has spawned a whole series of (even more unpleasant) "design classics":

Assemblage created in 2007 by the German designer Karl Langerfeld for the release of Dom Pérignon's 1992 vintage Oenothèque champagne.  Modelled on the left breast of Claudia Schiffer.

 Antoine Boudin,"Sen" service - ceramics designed for the Sèvres factory inspired by the bol-de-sein (2011)
And wandering into the realms of haute couture: Hubert Barrère La Vierge de Sèvres (2011)


Vogue online, 23/08/2014

"Bosoms, Bubbles, and Bollinger: What Shape Is Your Champagne Glass?" Letting the wine speak

Christine A. Jones, Shapely bodies: the image of porcelain in eighteenth-century France (2013) [Extracts on Google Books]

Selma Schwarz, "The "Etruscan" style at Sèvres: a bowl from Marie-Antoinette's dairy at Rambouillet" Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 37 (2002)

Notice for a modern version, on the Sèvres "gallerie" site.


  1. A precision: I guess Hubert Barrère "Vierge de Sèvres" also highly references the portraits of Agnès Sorel:


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