Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Ceramics in the French Renaissance

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Bernard Palissy and His School
The serious study of nature crops up in the work of the ceramist Bernard Palissy, as well as in that of other artists and architects like Philibert de l'Orme. Toward the end of his career, Palissy established a "little academy" in Sedan, in northeastern France, and gave lectures on the natural sciences there and in Paris that were published as the Discours admirables in 1580. Untutored in Latin and Greek, Palissy's knowledge was practical and based on direct observation. He kept a cabinet of curiosities, and this spirit of taxonomy transferred delightfully to the surface of what he called rustiques figulines [sic]. Palissy developed a method of molding from fauna and flora and applying the casts as decoration to large basins. Having closely observed the locomotion of animals, he transformed the slithering or coiling of snakes into motifs that invigorated his clay compositions (53.225.52). Textures of ferns and leaves contrast with the shiny spiral of the nautilus or sharp rim of the scallop, as he created works that mimic the habitat of a riverbank yet resolve into artistic order. His compositions read sometimes as parables: the cunning serpent preys on innocent creatures, or, in the tradition of tomb symbolism, snakes and frogs may represent the corruptibility of human flesh, while shells stand for eternal life. These tales in clay come brilliantly to life through stunning colors. Having begun his career as a stained-glass artist in Saintes, Palissy experimented with many enamel hues to achieve a rich palette of glazes.


Having closely observed the locomotion of animals, [Palissy] transformed the slithering or coiling of snakes into motifs that invigorated his clay compositions.

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His work was appreciated at the highest levels of society. Anne de Montmorency, one of the most astute art patrons of Renaissance France, collected Palissy's rustic plates in the late 1550s. To oversee her collection of glazed earthenware, Catherine de' Medici employed a garde-vaisselle, a ceramist-curator named Jean Charpentier, who mounted pieces on sideboards during festivals. As queen mother, she facilitated the advancement of Palissy's work by commissioning from him an entire room of clay creatures as a grotto for her Tuileries palace, then under construction after de l'Orme's designs during the late 1550s and the 1560s. Although it was not finished, many individual parts for the grotto survive, and the kilns Palissy used for the job were recently unearthed in excavations at the Louvre. Despite the prestige of his supporters, the Protestant Palissy was imprisoned for heresy and died in the Bastille in 1589.

His art was profound and revolutionized the field of ceramics. The potter's popularity led to a school of followers that over time increasingly emphasized the decorative aspect of his work. A whole class of objects developed in Palissy's wake that adapted his inventive shapes and colored glazes to human figures and decorative motifs. The "gondola" cup-a contemporary term for this ceramic type of a woman in the bath—for instance, employs Palissy's saturated colors, textured waves, and shell designs, but they are now tinged with the erotic sensibility of court art (53.225.54). A number of potters in Avon, the village next to Fontainebleau, produced works such as this partly submerged nude woman personifying a spring, a prevalent theme at this court that was, by tradition, named after a local water source. Probably modeled by Guillaume Dupré, this "gondola" cup maintains Palissy's sculptural attitude: it is clearly not a vessel but rather a nonfunctional, decorative, and wryly amusing work.

French Ceramics in the Provinces and at Court
The town of Saintes, where Bernard Palissy was born, has long been associated with the production of pottery. The economy of form of a water jar with spout (vase à bec) made in that city in the second half of the sixteenth century testifies to the strength of the city's tradition in this craft, in paring a work to an essential shape in response to its function (1993.25). The bold, swelling body echoes in the hoop strap over the neck, and three more straps join neck to waste to facilitate pouring. Its thick lead glaze in bright green finishes and protects its surface. The pilgrim flask (41.49.9a,b), utterly unlike the Saintes water jar, was fired in the same period farther south in Nîmes in 1581. Although its ceramic form derives from a common type, the flask was painted with a sophisticated blend of technique and ornament. Its tin-glaze painting follows the example of contemporary maiolica produced in such Italian towns as Urbino and Faenza. The grotesques of fantastic creatures entwined with strapwork and birds are adapted from designs by the court artist Jacques Ducerceau.

This range of French pottery from rustic to refined comes together in the most intriguing ware of all, called Saint-Porchaire. It, too, has a connection to the provinces in the southwest, in the town of Saint-Porchaire, in Deux-Sèvres, and nearby Parthenay and Bressuire; as at Saintes, this region is the site of deposits of kaolin-rich white clay, prized for its fine texture and capacity to render precise detail. Yet the ware's sources are so sophisticated and disparate and its technical construction so complex that it appears to have close links to the court.

The answer to how artisans apparently working in provincial circumstances acquired access to highly sophisticated design models appears to lie partly in the peripatetic nature of artists at the time and partly with the Montmorency-Laval family branch that patronized the small factory. Through dynastic ties to Anne de Montmorency, the potteries must have known collections of prints, bookbindings, metalwork, carved rock crystal, and other works of art that inspired these astonishingly eclectic clay creations. Some scholars, however, believe that such wares could only have been made in Paris.

Although no two pieces are alike, they share certain common motifs and techniques. The most prevalent is the interlace, a pattern popularized by printed books like Francisque Pellegrin's La fleur de la science de Pourtraitcure [sic], published at Fontainebleau in 1530, and often seen on the handsome bookbindings produced in the era of Jean Grolier de Servières, bibliophile and treasurer general of France in 1547. The interlace designs are inlaid by matrices, either directly into the clay body in its leather-hard state before firing, or on sheets of clay that are then applied to it. Contrasting colored clay is then inserted into these depressions, and the final glaze further smoothes the division between the clays. Such an approach is highly unusual in ceramic production and closer in spirit to metalworking techniques such as niello-blackened sulfur fused into gouged designs-as seen on contemporary arms and armor decorations.

The patterned surfaces of Saint-Porchaire wares are often overlaid by other clay additions, such as the handle of a ewer in the Museum's collection-part tree trunk, part winged dragon, part ram (17.190.1740). A statuette in relief of the Virgin and Child forms part of the base of its spout, while a miniature building with tiny figures in Gothic arches constitutes the neck. A number of the sixty-odd known examples of Saint-Porchaire ware (seven are in the Museum) are based on humble forms such as biberons, or nursing jugs, with simple hoop handles like the water jar from Saintes. The adroit mixture of court art and peasant form marks this perfect expression of the French Renaissance.

Ian Wardropper
Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art