Bernard Palissy

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Bernard Palissy.
Bernard Palissy.

Bernard Palissy (~1510 - 1590), French potter, is said to have been born about 1510, either at Saintes or Agen, but both date and locality are uncertain. It has been stated, on insufficient authority, that his father was a glass-painter and that he served as his fathers apprentice. He tells us that he was apprenticed to a glass-painter and that he also acquired in his youth the elements of land-surveying. At the end of his apprenticeship he followed the general custom and became a travelling workman; acquiring fresh knowledge in many parts of France and the Low Countries, perhaps even in the Rhine Provinces of Germany and in Italy.

About 1539 it appears that he returned to his native district and, having married, took up his abode at Saintes. How he lived during the first years of his married life we have little record except when he tells us, in his autobiography, that he practised the arts of a portrait-painter, glass-painter and landsurveyor as a means of livelihood. It is known for instance that he was commissioned to survey and prepare a plan of the salt marshes in the neighborhood of Saintes when the council of Francis I determined to establish a salt tax in the Saintonge. It is not quite clear, from his own account, whether it was during his Wanderjahr or after he settled at Saintes that he was shown a white enamelled cup which caused him such surprise that he determined to spend his lifeto use his own expressive phrase like a man who gropes in the dark in order to discover the secrets of its manufacture. Most writers have supposed that this piece of fine white pottery was a piece of the enamelled majolica of Italy, but such a theory will hardly bear examination. In Palissys time pottery covered with beautiful white tin-enamel was manufactured at many centres in Italy, Spain, Germany and the South of France, and it is inconceivable that a man so travelled and so acute should not have been well acquainted with its appearance and properties. What is much more likely is that Palissy saw, among the treasures of some nobleman, a specimen of Chinese porcelain, then one of the wonders of the European world, and, knowing nothing of its nature, substance or manufacture, he set himself to work to discover the secrets for himself. At the neighboring village of La Chapelle-des-Pots he mastered the rudiments of peasant pottery as it wai practised in the 16th century. Other equipment he had none, except such indefinite information as he presumably had acquired during his travels of the manufacture of European tin-enamelled pottery.

For nearly sixteen years Palissy labored on in these wild endeavours, through a succession of utter failures, working with the utmost diligency and constancy but, for the most part, without a gleam of hope. The story is a most tragic one; for at times he and his family were reduced to the bitterest poverty; he burned his furniture and even, it is said, the floor boards of his house to feed the fires of his furnaces; sustaining meanwhile the reproaches of his wife, who, with her little family clamouring for food, evidently regarded these proceedings as little short of insanity. All these struggles and failures are most faithfully recorded by Palissy himself in one of the simplest and most interesting pieces of autobiography ever written. The tragedy of it all is that Palissy not only failed to discover the secret of Chinese porcelain, which we assume him to have been searching for, but that when he did succeed in jnaking the special type of pottery that will always be associated with his name it should have been inferior in artistic merit to the contemporary productions of Spain and Italy. His first successes can only have been a superior kind of peasant pottery decorated with modelled or applied reliefs colored naturalistically with glazes and enamels. These works had already attracted attention locally when, in 1548, the constable de Montmorency was sent into the Saintonge to suppress the revolution there. Montmorency protected the potter and found him employment in decorating with his glazed terra-cottas the chatteau d'Ecouen. The patronage of such an influential noble soon brought Palissy into fame at the French court, and although he was an avowed Protestant, he was protected by these nobles from the ordinances of the parliament of Bordeaux when, in 1562, the property of all the Protestants in this district was seized. Palissys workshops and kilns were destroyed, but he himself was saved, and, by the interposition of the all-powerful constable, he was appointed inventor of rustic pottery to the king and the queen-mother ; about 1563, under royal protection, he was allowed to establish a fresh pottery works in Paris in the vicinity of the royal palace of the Louvre. The site of his kilns indeed became afterwards a portion of the gardens of the Iuileries. For about twenty-five years from this date Palissy lived and worked in Paris. He appears to have been a personal favorite of Catherine de Medicis, and of her sons, in spite of his profession of the reformed religion.

Working for the court, his productions passed through many phases, for besides continuing his rustic figulines he made a large number of dishes and plaques ornamented with scriptural or mythological subjects in relief, and in many cases he appears to have made reproductions of the pewter dishes of Francois Briot and other metal workers of the period. During this period too he gave several series of public lectures on natural historythe entrance fee being one crown, a large fee for those daysin which he poured forth all the ideas of his fecund mind. His ideas of springs and underground waters were far in advance of the general knowledge of his time, and he was one of the first men in Europe to enunciate the correct theory of fossils. I

The close of Palissys life was quite in keeping with his active and stormy youth. Like Ambroise Pare, and some other notable men of his time, he was protected against ecclesiastical persecution by the court and some of the great nobles, but in the fanatical outburst of 1588 he was thrown into the Bastille, and although Henry III offered him his freedom if he would recant, Palissy refused to save his life on any such terms. He was condemned to death when nearly eighty years of age, but he died in one of the dungeons of the Bastille in 1589.

Palissys Pottery.The technique of the various wares he made shows their derivation from the ordinary peasant pottery of the period, though Palissys productions are, of course, vastly superior to anything of their kind previously made in Europe. It appears almost certain that he never used the potters wheel, as all his best known pieces have evidently been pressed into a mould and then finished by modelling or by the application of ornament moulded in relief. His most characteristic productions are the large plates, ewers, oval dishes and vases to which he applied realistic figures of reptiles, fish, shells, plants and other objects. This is, however, not the work of an artist, but Rustic Plate by Palissy.

His work was that of a highly gifted naturalist at the dawn of modern science, who delighted to copy, with faithful accuracy, all the details of reptiles, fishes, plants or shells. We may be sure that his fossil shells were not forgotten, and it has been suggested, with great probability, that these pieces of Palissys were only manufactured after his removal to Paris, as the shells are always well-known forms from the Eocene deposits of the Paris basin. Casts from these objects were fixed on to a metal dish or vase of the shape required, and a fresh cast of the whole formed a mould from which Palissy could reproduce many articles of the same kind. The various parts of each piece were painted in realistic colors, or as nearly so as could be reached by the pigments Palissy was able to discover and prepare. These colors were mostly various shades of blue from indigo to ultramarine, some rather vivid greens, several tints of browns and greys, and, more rarely, yellow. A careful examination of the most authentic Palissy productions shows that they excel in the sharpness of their modelling, in a perfect neatness of manufacture and, above all, in the subdued richness of their general tone of color. The crude greens, bright purples and yellows are only found in the works of his imitators; whilst in the marbled colors on the backs of the dishes Palissys work is soft and well fused, in the imitations it is generally dry, even harsh and uneven. Other pieces, such as dishes and plaques, were ornamented by figure subjects treated after the same fashion, generally scriptural scenes or subjects from dassical mythology, copied, in many cases, from works in sculpture by contemporary artists.

Another class of designs used by Palissy were plates, lazze and the like, with geometrical patterns moulded in relief and pierced through, forming a sort of open network. Perhaps the most successful, as works of art, were those plates and ewers which Palissy moulded in exact facsimile of the rich and delicate works in pewter for which Francois Briot and other Swiss metal-workers were so celebrated. These are in very slight relief, executed with cameo-like finish, and are mostly of good design belonging to the school of metal-working developed by the Italian goldsmiths of the 16th century. Palissys ceramic reproductions of these metal plates were not improved by the colors with which he picked out the designs.

Some few enamelled earthenware statuettes, full of vigour and expression, have been attributed to Palissy; but it is doubtful whether he ever worked in the round. On the whole his productions cannot be assigned a high rank as works of art, though they have always beeii highly valued, and in the I7th century attempts were made, both at Delft and Lambeth, to adapt his rustic dishes with the reliefs of animals and human figures. These imitations are very blunt in modelling and coarsely painted. They are generally marked on the back in blue with initials and a date showing them to be honest adaptations to a different medium, not attempts at forgery such as have been produced during the last fifty years or so. One of the first signs of the revival of old French faience, a movement that was in great activity between 1840 and 1870, was the appearance of copies of Palissys Bestiole dishes, made with great skill and success by Avisseau of Tours, and afterwards by Pull of Paris. Though both these men produced original works of their own, collectors have had great cause to regret the excellence of their copies, for many of the best, being unmarked, have found their way into good collections. The well-known potter, Barbizet, who set out to make Palissys for the million, flooded France for a time with rude copies that ought never to have deceived anyone.

The best collections of Palissys ware are those in the museums of the Louvre, the Hotel Cluny, and Svres; and in England that in the Victoria and Albert Museum, together with a few choice specimens in the British Museum and in the Wallace Collection.

As an author, Palissy was undoubtedly more successful than as a potter. A very high position amongst French writers is assigned to him by Lamartine (B. Palissy, 8vo., Paris, I852). He wrote with vigour and simplicity on a great variety of subjects, such as agriculture, natural philosophy, religion, and especially in his LArt de terre, where he gives an account of his processes and how he discovered them.

See Morley, Life of Palissy (1855); Marryat, Pottery (1850, pp. 31 seq.); A. Dumesnil, B. Palissy, le potier de terre (1851); A. Tamtuner, Terres mailles de Palissy (1863); Delecluze, B. Palissy (1838); Enjubault, LArt cramique de B. Palissy (1858); Audiat, Etude sur la vie. . . de B. Palissy (1868); H. Delange, Monographie de l-suvre de B. Palissy (1862). For Palissy as a Huguenot, see Rossignol, Des Protestantes -illustres, No. iv. (1861). The best English account of Palissy as a potter is that given by M. L. Solon, the most distinguished pottery-artist of the I9th century, in his History and Description of the Old French Faience (1903). (W. B. *)fr:Bernard Palissy


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