Faience, or tin-glazed and enameled earthenware, first emerged in France during the sixteenth century, reaching widespread usage among elite patrons during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, prior to the establishment of soft-paste porcelain factories. Although characterized as more provincial in style than porcelain, French faience was used at the court of Louis XIV as part of elaborate meals and displays, with large-scale vessels incorporated into the Baroque garden designs of Versailles. Earlier examples of French faience attest to the strong influence of maiolica artists from Italy. Later works demonstrate the ways in which cities such as Nevers, Rouen, Lyon, Moustiers, and Marseille developed innovative vessel shapes and decorative motifs prized among collectors throughout Europe.
While faience can be created from a wide mixture of clays, it is foremost distinguished by the milky opaque white color achieved by the addition of tin oxide to the glaze. French faience is typically divided into two types. Grand feu (high fire) describes pieces that have been decorated with glaze and metallic oxides before being fired a single time at a high temperature of around 1650°F (900°C). Petit feu (low-fire) faience, developed in the second half of the eighteenth century, refers to a process whereby the clay body is fired before being glazed and decorated with metallic oxides and then fired again at a lower temperature; pieces can also go through a third firing. Grand feu pieces have a more limited color palette that consists of blue, yellow, brown-purple, and green. By contrast, the lower firing temperature of petit feu faience enabled both greater precision in painting techniques and variety in the range of colors.
Tin-glazed earthenware first developed during the eighth century in the Middle East and arrived in Europe as a result of conquest, trade, and exchange. The earliest European faience workshops appeared in Spain from the tenth century. In Italy, faience emerged during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and was known as maiolica. The term faience derives from the northern Italian city of Faenza, once a major center of maiolica production. During the later sixteenth century, Italian artist Gian Francesco de Pesaro migrated north to Lyon, where he established one of the first faience workshops in France. Faience painters such as Gironimo Tomasi, originally from Urbino, flourished in Lyon, while the Conrado (Conrade) family from Albisola established a workshop that simultaneously produced local faience and imported maiolica pieces from Liguria. Early Lyon faience (17.190.1802) shows the strong influence of northern Italian maiolica, which feature istoriati, narrative subjects taken from classical mythology, religion, or history favored by Renaissance painters.
Nevers, a city located in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region of central France, became a significant site of faience production in the early seventeenth century, with close links to factories in Lyon. The 1565 marriage between Louis Gonzaga of Mantua and Henriette of Cleves, heiress of Nevers, encouraged the production of Italian artisans who had moved to the city and helped establish factories there. Although Italian influence is evident in Nevers pieces from the first decades of the seventeenth century (02.6.274), artisans in the city began developing a distinctive regional style by the middle of the century that incorporated vibrant blues and greens used both as ground glazes and in polychrome decoration. Faience in Nevers reached a height of technical and artistic achievement in the 1680s, when it produced large-scale ewers and vases decorated in blue, white, and yellow, often featuring exotic decorative motifs (17.190.1796).
The sumptuary edicts enacted by Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) inadvertently encouraged the market for French faience, beginning in the second half of the seventeenth century. The Sun King demanded that the French nobility melt down their precious metals to help finance France’s ongoing wars, and to set the example, sent his own collection of opulent silver furniture in December 1689 to the royal mint. The most loyal courtiers were expected to follow suit and replace their silver services with versions in faience. The duc de Saint-Simon described the overnight frenzy among the nobility: “In eight days, all who were of grand or considerable standing used only faience services, they emptied the boutiques and created a heated frenzy for this merchandise, whereas the mediocre continued to make use of their silver.” Faience dishes were thus incorporated into elaborate meals at court, while vessels molded in imitation of silverware were prominently displayed on buffets. The largest pieces were placed outdoors to striking effect. In the gardens of Versailles designed by André Le Nôtre, blue and white jassemin vases from Nevers accentuated primary axes and parterres arranged in embroidery patterns. Faience was most visible at the Trianon de Porcelaine, a pleasure pavilion constructed in 1670 out of ceramic. Despite its name, the Trianon was more likely built out of faience rather than porcelain, since the kaolin needed to produce true porcelain was not discovered in Europe until 1708.
In the course of the seventeenth century, regional variations developed in faience across France. In Rouen, Masséot Abaquesne established one of the earliest faience workshops in 1526. Although Abaquesne specialized primarily in the fabrication of decorated tiles (17.190.1953), the city became one of the most extensive producers of faience in France. At Edme Poterat’s factory, founded in 1656, lambrequin motifs in red and blue were used in a radiating pattern on dishes and would become a virtual trademark of the city. Although much of Rouen faience initially imitated designs found on Chinese export ceramics known as kraak porcelain (17.190.1861), local artisans gradually began adding garlands, flowers, draperies, and crosshatching patterns in the borders (17.190.1858, .1859). Rouen became particularly well known for ochre niellé (inlaid ocher), a rich yellow glaze combined with foliate designs in blue and red arranged on large dishes (17.190.1890). Pouncing, a technique of piercing the clay with small dots and rubbing charcoal into the recessed points to transfer a drawn design prior to glazing, was used in decorations based on engravings (17.190.1834). Plates could also be personalized through the addition of coats of arms (17.190.1892).
Although chinoiserie, embroidery patterns, and the influence of court artists such as Jean Berain (17.190.1885) were characteristic features of faience from Moustiers, local manufacturers and painters helped spur the creation of new shapes and designs. The Olérys-Laugier Factory in Moustiers was responsible for some of the most inventive designs in faience, incorporating whimsical polychromy grotesques into pieces for the table. Instead of intricate lambrequin motifs, the factory produced designs in green, yellow, and blue color schemes in elegant floral garland decorations that catered to the simpler tastes of the eighteenth century (17.190.1893a,b). The factory hired talented painters who added special flair to hand-painted decorations. While many faience decorators remain unknown, artists at the Olérys-Laugier Factory often signed pieces with their personal marks alongside those of the factory.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, petit feu replaced the grand feu techniques that dominated earlier faience production. Firing pieces a second time after decoration allowed for more precise polychrome painting techniques. The greater degree of control over colors and painting compositions can be seen in an elaborate potpourri with a cover (50.211.82a,b) produced at Niderviller from 1760 to 1765. While the dynamic shape evokes the exaggerated asymmetrical forms favored by Rococo ornament designers such as Juste Aurèle Meissonnier (1999.370.1a,b, .2a,b), the vibrant polychrome decoration and skillful openwork cover evokes the experiments taking place at the porcelain factories of Sèvres and Meissen.
Faience production gradually declined in the second half of the eighteenth century, despite late petit feu producers such as Levavasseur in Rouen (50.211.108). The demise of faience was due in part to the rising prestige of Sèvres porcelain. Following the establishment of its precursor factory at Vincennes in 1740, Louis XV and his official mistress Madame de Pompadour patronized the Sèvres porcelain manufactory, which dominated French taste at the court and in elite private collections during this period. It is likely that faience producers could not keep up with the daring forms and vibrant colors that emerged from Sèvres, during a period of heightened luxury consumption when newness and variety were prized over tradition. Nonetheless, it appears that affection remained for the simpler, rustic forms of French faience. Upon the death of Madame de Pompadour in 1764, it was discovered that she possessed more than 350 pieces of faience, including blue and white dishes with her coat of arms from Moustiers. Despite her preference for crackled celadon vases set into extravagant Rococo gilt-bronze mounts and exotic pink elephant vases (58.75.91a,b), this consummate lover of fine things seems to have savored the simple pleasure of dinner served on a blue and white faience dish, rather than a silver platter.