The ceramic industry in France underwent a radical transformation in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Determined that pottery vessels should be regarded as true works of art, a group of avant-garde ceramists evolved their craft into an intellectual and emotional endeavor. This “rebirth” in ceramics developed in reaction to a period of historicism that preceded it, and its pioneers were Ernest Chaplet, Théodore Deck, Jean Carriès, and Auguste Delaherche, revolutionary artist-potters who embraced artisanal traditions while pursuing lost techniques through exhaustive experimentation. Rejecting what they viewed as an excessive and improper use of ornament, they celebrated the simplicity and sincerity of their medium, following the tenets of the Art Nouveau style sweeping Europe. Based on the principles of the British Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau artists sought to reform the decorative arts by emphasizing uniqueness and a return to craftsmanship. The ceramists typically worked in a designated “art pottery,” either in their own small-scale studios or in an independently run branch of a larger company. Many artist-potters found inspiration in Asian ceramics, particularly Japanese stoneware (a hard, dense type of pottery), which was shown in 1878 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, as well as in the forms, glazes, and techniques of Chinese porcelain and pottery. They also looked to European traditions such as the rustic salt-glazed stoneware of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and Gothic sculpture and architecture. In the process, they created works of ceramic art that were entirely modern and new.
Joseph-Théodore Deck (1823–1891) was among the earliest of the French art potters. His small-scale manufactory, which specialized in artistic faience (tin-glazed earthenware), achieved success by producing ceramics in the popular styles of the day—East Asian, Neo-Renaissance, and Turkish Iznik (1985.225). Deck’s innovative use of color and his developments in glazes, including the distinctive turquoise glaze that bears his name, “bleu de Deck,” made him a leader in the avant-garde ceramic art renaissance of the late nineteenth century (1993.313). The etcher and designer Félix Bracquemond (1833–1914) worked briefly in Deck’s studio in the 1860s. Bracquemond was influential in bringing the Japanese style to French decorative arts; his contributions to japonisme include ceramic designs with imagery borrowed from Japanese prints (1996.161.3). A later generation of ceramists emerged from the “Deck school,” including Edmond Lachenal (1855–1948), who was hired by Deck as an apprentice at age fifteen and became an important art potter in his own right (2013.239.24), and later Lachenal’s pupil Émile Decoeur (1876–1953), who became a prominent ceramist in post–World War I France.
Considered the father of French art pottery, Ernest Chaplet (1835–1909) played an influential role in nearly all genres of the movement. After apprenticing at Sèvres, Chaplet worked at the Laurin factory in Bourg-la-Reine, where he developed barbotine ware—a pottery akin to Impressionist painting. In 1875, he joined the Haviland workshop at Auteuil, and in 1881 he was appointed director of the Haviland studio on the rue Blomet in Paris, where he made rustic brown stoneware and frequently collaborated with Albert-Louis Dammouse (1848–1926) and his brother Édouard-Alexandre Dammouse (1850–1903) (2013.473). While at Haviland in the early 1880s, Chaplet learned how to make the desirable but technically difficult Chinese sang de boeuf (oxblood) glaze, for which he would later win a medal at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle (2013.477). Chaplet sold the rue Blomet studio in 1887 and moved to Choisy-le-Roi, where he worked as an independent art potter, focusing on Chinese-inspired porcelain with high-fire “flambé” glazes (2013.478). After losing his sight in 1904, Chaplet left his studio to his son-in-law Émile Lenoble (1875–1939), who developed his own style of ceramics during the Art Deco period.
Called the “poet of stoneware,” Auguste Delaherche (1857–1940) was a leading figure in France’s ceramic renaissance. Delaherche was born in Beauvais, where he showed an early interest in the arts. He began his career in ceramics in 1883 working for a company that produced inexpensive utilitarian wares. In 1887, he acquired Ernest Chaplet’s Haviland studio in Paris, where he focused on artistic stoneware inspired by Asian ceramics (2013.487). He moved to Armentières in 1894 to work quietly in the countryside. Known for his minimalist style and beautiful glazes, Delaherche was one of the most important, and most famous, fin-de-siècle ceramists (2013.485).
Jean-Joseph Carriès (1855–1894) was born in Lyon to a poor family and orphaned at the age of six. A visionary, he achieved prominence as a sculptor before turning to ceramics. His work included Japanese-style stoneware vessels, Gothic-inspired sculptural ceramics, and caricature-like facial masks (2006.83; 2013.489). His stonewares, with matte glazes enhanced with gold, created a sensation when they were exhibited in Paris in 1892. Carriès died two years later at the age of thirty-nine, at the home of his friend Georges Hoentschel (1855–1915), a prominent decorator, collector, and architect who also designed Art Nouveau ceramics (2007.27).
Contemporary painting and sculpture played a significant role in the French art pottery movement. Barbotine pottery—earthenware decorated with colored liquid slips painted in an impasto style—was inspired by Impressionism and Barbizon landscape painting (2013.239.21). It was associated with the production of the Haviland workshop at Auteuil and the Laurin factory at Bourg-la-Reine. Barbotine ware was also made by American art potters of the same period. Furthermore, in a breaking down of traditional boundaries between the fine arts and the “applied” or decorative arts, it was not uncommon to find collaboration between ceramists and prominent artists, many involved with the Symbolist movement. Some potters like Théodore Deck were known to hire artist friends for the painting of pots. Others worked extensively with sculptors, as did Pierre-Adrien Dalpayrat (1844–1910), a master of glazes, including his famous streaky red glaze, known as “Dalpayrat rouge.” Dalpayrat enjoyed a brief, but successful collaboration with the sculptor Alphonse Voisin-Delacroix (1857–1893), creating pottery that was highly sculptural and often symbolic (2013.481). Clément Massier (1844–1917), known for making pottery with a metallic iridescent glaze inspired by medieval Spanish lusterware, also collaborated with Symbolist sculptor James Vibert (1872–1917) (2013.503).
Finally, some painters, like Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), tried their own hand at ceramics. Gauguin’s earliest ceramics were made in collaboration with Ernest Chaplet, whom he had met through Félix Bracquemond. Gauguin eventually developed his own technique of hand-sculpting the clay without the use of a potter’s wheel. Thinking the medium a pure form for artistic expression, he regarded his ceramic creations as “sculptures” (2013.471).
The contributions of commercial enterprises like Sèvres or Haviland were limited largely to the artists who had worked for them at one time or another. At Sèvres, the factory operated at a loss until a drastic reorganization and changes to production were implemented in the 1890s. At this time, crystalline glazes entered into regular production, and by 1900 Sèvres began making vases in the full-blown Art Nouveau style, including pieces designed by Hector Guimard (1867–1942), architect of the iconic Paris Métro station entrances (2013.502).