Psychologically, financially, and militarily, the French alliance was of critical importance to the success of the American Revolution. In 1776 the Continental Congress sent a delegation of three representatives to Paris to secure official French support. Although Silas Deane (1737–1789) and Arthur Lee (1740–1792) were part of the delegation, Benjamin Franklin is the best remembered of the group. He was popular with the French because of his scientific achievements, plain and rustic demeanor, and unpretentious dignity. On February 6, 1778, two treaties between His Most Christian Majesty, the king of France and the fledgling United States were signed. The treaties recognized American independence and sovereignty, pledged mutual defense if Britain tried to interrupt commerce between the two nations, and guaranteed the French possessions in the West Indies. In this bisque group, the inscription “Liberté Des Mers” (freedom of the seas) on the scroll that Louis XVI presents to Franklin refers to these provisions.
Although the treaties had been finalized in secret, their signing was known within a few weeks in French and American political circles. To recognize the new alliance formally, Louis XVI received the American commissioners at court in mid-March and there established full diplomatic relations. This figure group may represent the court reception rather than the actual signing in February, although in either case the occasion depicted was certainly auspicious. Symbolically, the power and majesty of France, embodied by the elegant figure of Louis XVI in courtly martial costume, are united with the American cause for independence, represented by Franklin, plainly clothed and gesturing humbly.
This bisque group is considered the work of Charles-Gabriel Sauvage, the foremost figure modeler employed at the Niderviller factory between 1779 and 1806.1Ralston, 271–73. The right proper rear of the base is impressed “NIDERVILLER” and incised “No 70.” Although founded as a faience pottery in 1754, the factory at Niderviller began making porcelain as well in 1765.2For more information on the Niderviller factory, see Tilmans, 125–26, and Porcelainiers, 248–49ff. With a matte surface resembling antique marble, the bisque (i.e. unglazed) porcelain used for this group and for many other figures made during the late eighteenth century in France, reflects the influence of neoclassicism.
Ellen Paul Denker and Bert R. Denker
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.