Before talking about earthenware, it is worth defining it exactly.
We can divide them into two classes: red earthenware and white earthenware. The first one is a reddish terracotta, covered with a white glaze, vitrifiable, opaque, whose base is tin. The second is a fired clay, similar in tone to pipe clay, with a silicate glaze.
For a long time, the only known type of earthenware was that with tanniferous glazes. The invention is generally attributed to the Florentine Luca Delia Robbia, but this is an error, since Arab workers had previously decorated the Alhambra in Granada, the Alcazar in Seville, and the mosques of Cadiz and Cordoba with tiles. Passeri, in his Historia delle pitture in majolica, assures us that he saw real faience among the ornaments of a tomb in the year 1100, and the factories of Faenza were not established until the fifteenth century.
White earthenware, also known as opaque porcelain, is only a few years old, and never shone with greater brilliance than at the 1867 Exhibition. The Kensington Museum, the public and private collections of Europe and America, competed for the numerous and remarkable samples.
The Deck company is the most complete representative of opaque porcelain. The paintings of the artists it employs are executed on biscuit, with metallic and vitrifiable colours; the piece then receives a translucent covering, and is fired in a large fire. It emerges with tones that are as rich as they are solid. If, in certain respects, oil paintings, watercolours, gouaches and pastels prevail over ceramic products, the latter have an invaluable advantage: their brilliance, their colours and their glaze are indelible; they suffer neither from humidity, nor from cold nor from heat.
Mr. Deck has the secrets of preparation and firing that have ensured his reputation; he also knows how to surround himself with painters, each of whom excels in a spontaneously chosen genre, and distinguishes himself by a well-defined individuality. Mr. Ranvier imitates or reproduces the figures of Etruscan vases. Mr. Gluck has knights armed from head to foot, squires carrying blazoned banners, chatelaines wearing hennines, pages in half-timbered costume, falconers and varlets: his hunting and war scenes are full of spirit and movement.
M. Ehrmann is a fine, skilful and ingenious decorator, well versed in architectural studies. M. Legrain treats allegorical subjects with real superiority, while Mme Lescallié knows how to happily arrange groups of flowers.
Such is the valiant platoon of which Mr. Deck is the captain and which he leads to victory.
M. Deck has understood perfectly well what the measure of decorative earthenware should be; MM. Utzschneider et Cie, from Sarreguemines (Moselle), seem to have exaggerated it. On round vases, planters, jardinières, they lavish allegorical paintings, views, landscapes; it is exuberant. These paintings have the defect of being executed on enamel, of which they annihilate all transparency, all limpidity. The factories of Sarreguemines are in a better position as regards the large pieces of wardrobe, washbasins, toilets, the making of which offers so many difficulties.
The large French faience factories of Sarreguemines, Creil, Montereau, Gien, Bordeaux, have long lived indolently under the protection of the monopoly that the absolute prohibition of foreign faience assured them. They were almost always content to copy English models which they repeated over and over again. Since the trade treaty, stimulated by competition, they have varied their models and have left the routine.
A large number of exhibitors, concerned about the need to deliver their earthenware at a good price, decorate it by chromolithography, by printing in colour on the paste. This process was, as early as 1818, the subject of a patent taken out by M. Legros d'Anisy, and which he gave up exploiting after impotent attempts. The application of lithography to ceramics was revived in 1850, and the Darte brothers successfully produced monochrome prints, including the most complicated gold designs. A few years later, a printer named Mangin created what he called calcography, and he traced, on porcelain or earthenware, drawings painted with metallic oxides and vitrifiable. Mr. Mangin, after fifteen years of effort, was forced to return to the workshops of Mr. Guesnu, from where he had started; but his invention is not dead. It is used successfully by the Prévost and Macé companies, both of Paris.
But was there not something else besides chromolithography? This is what M. E. Rousseau sought, and he found a new application for etching, whose bites are so deep and whose prints are so clear. The table services executed by him on the drawings of Mr. Bracquemont, reach an extraordinary richness of tone, and have the advantage of being able to be delivered at low cost.
Mr. Bracquemont engraves fish, birds and flowers. Once the plate is finished, proofs are cut out of it, still fresh, and applied to the piece to be decorated.
Let us suppose that it is a white earthenware or opaque porcelain plate.
Before firing it, the cut-out prints are placed on top.
It is put in the oven.
The paper burns, the prints remain.
The firing is interrupted to colour these prints with metallic oxides. The plate is covered with a translucent cover and fired over a large fire.
Mr. Rousseau, who is an indefatigable innovator, had another idea that could be fruitful. Earthenware is eminently suitable for the exterior decoration of buildings; but if an iconoclastic passer-by or an idle child strikes the ceramic work with a stone or a stick, the work is lost forever!
How can damage be prevented? By applying to earthenware the system adopted for stained glass. M. E. Rousseau divides each plate into pieces which are then put together and welded with plaster. This is how the Return from the Land of Canaan, whose figures are of natural size, was executed. When viewed from a distance, the dots disappear and the black lines that follow the main contours contribute to the effect.
The Return of the Land of Canaan was painted on raw glaze, by a process of unheard-of difficulty, but with which our artists obtain beautiful results.
You take a panel of terracotta, or to put it more accurately, degreased; you dip it in a bath of stanniferous enamel which, drying almost immediately, adheres under (orme of white dust.
You paint on it; but beware! Do not hesitate for a single moment! This powdery and grainy layer eagerly drinks up the colours; corrections are impossible; and if your brush deviates, all is lost!
Be careful to calculate the changes that your colouring oxides will undergo in the fire.
If you have overcome these obstacles, you fire the piece in one large kiln fire. The glaze and the paint melt together, unite intimately with each other, incorporate with the paste, and form paintings full of vigour and brilliance. One can judge this at the Exhibition of 1867, by those of Messrs. Hippolyte Pinart, the skilful reproducer of the classical masters; Michel Bouquet, the landscape painter; Laurin, whose bandits have such a proud look; Genlis and Rudhart, whose earthenware reminds one of those of the old artists of Rouen.
The imitations of old earthenware were more numerous and even more successful in 1867 than at previous exhibitions.
Naturally Bernard Palissy is at the head of the imitations. The productions of this famous potter from Sainton were at first, as is well known, only dishes enriched with various glazes and enameled with iaspe. He then made, for the lordly dressers, rustic pieces, basins, where on a bed of leaves with apparent veins, fish, reptiles, shells and insects are jumbled together. Later, Palissy substituted bas-reliefs, capricious arabesques, and grimacing mascarons for these mouldings on nature. He made statuettes and completed his work with the invention of rustic figulines for garden decoration.
In all these genres, Bernard Palissy has continuators.
M. Avisseau of Tours was the first to discover the secret of rustic pieces. A sixteenth-century manuscript, published in Volume II of the Monumens inédits, stated that, to prepare the motifs of the composition, it was necessary to glue the plants on a tin dish with Venetian turpentine; to fix the little creatures to it by means of wires that passed through the dish, which had previously been pierced with small holes; and finally, to cast with fine plaster. M. Avisseau thought that it was better to model than to mould; and his compositions, full of movement and life, were soon sought after by many amateurs. When death struck him, he had won a place among artists.
M. Avisseau fils has not degenerated. He knows how to make the breeze flow through the leaves; how to make the lizard run, turning around as it flees, to look at the object of its fear; how to make the folds of the irritated snake undulate, swelling as it hisses. To paint his animals, M. Avisseau fils has found particular reds and whites, a deep black, and other colours which he prepares in his domestic workshop, with the help of a sister and a nephew. He imitated Bernard Palissy to the end, who had associated his nephews Nicolas and Mathurin, as we learn from the book of expenses, kept in 1570 by the clerk of the King's works.
A ewer and its tray, exhibited by M. Avisseau, are obtained by a patient inlaying of coloured pastes, according to a process whose origins were discovered by the learned archaeologist Benjamin Fillon in Oiron in the Vendée. The difficulties involved in making these pieces, especially during firing, which can destroy in an instant the fruit of several months' work, have been symbolised by the potter-artist in an oval bas-relief made of bisque clay. It represents the ceramic personified, with the ancient wheel of the potters beside her, and meditating anxiously before the kiln on which her destiny depends. She experiences the anguish that Palissy described so well in his memoirs, "When he was deemed to be mad, and went through the streets, all bowed down, like a shameful man. "
On M. Barbizet's large dishes, the vegetation is luxuriant; the lizards warm their emerald scales in the sun, the lobsters stand up on their hairy legs, as if to regain their natural element.
M. Barbizet is not only inspired by Palissy; he is seduced by the broad style and warm colouring of Italian majolica.
His enormous buire, in one piece, except for the foot, would have produced a good effect on a suitable pedestal at the end of the avenue of a garden in the time of Como de Medici. Her figure of a Negress, of natural size, draped in bright fabrics, would be well placed on a grand staircase; a hole has been made in the interior of this one-piece statue, and from the basket she carries on her head a shower of light can be seen. The most important work in M. Barbizet's exhibition is a rock on which children are frolicking, one of whom is holding a large valve with water-green streaks and fringes of lichen and moss. King Wilhelm, after taking the advice of M. de Bismark, bought this important piece for the castle of Potsdam.
Walking through the galleries of class 17, one might think oneself lost in the midst of a ceramic collection from all periods and all countries. The elegant ewer of M. Ulysse seems to have escaped from the museum of Blois, of which he is the curator, and to date from the time of Henry II. It is from the factories of Faenza and Urbino that the great torchère of M. Auguste Jean must have come out, and his fountain with two basins, the lower one of which is supported by nereids sitting on conventional dolphins created by mythology. A potter from Rouen, contemporary of Louis XV, would have signed the pretty vase of M. Abel Girard, from Aprey (Haute-Marne), with a medallion and blue arabesques on a white background. The fountain and the basin of M. Signoret, from Nevers, are reminiscent of the pieces that can be admired in the Musée de la Place Ducale. As for Mr. Georges Pull, he is a sixteenth century artist, from whom he borrows various models. Here, from Bernard Palissy, is a dish representing Pomona, a dish cut to size, and two charming figures, the hurdy-gurdy player and the nurse; here, from Benvenuto Cellini, is a ewer decorated with enamels; from Jean Goujon, a Diana the Huntress; from Germain Pilon, a large earthenware fireplace. This is the one that once decorated the salon of the Château de Villeroy, and which is now in the Renaissance room in the Louvre. Caryatids with satyr-like faces, long beards and horned foreheads support the rich mantle. It is composed of twenty-eight pieces, which had to be held in a large fire to obtain good connections. The enormous difficulty and the originality of this work explain the high price that Mr. Georges Pull asked for it, thirty thousand francs; but it is money.
Outside of class 17, we find in class 8: Application of drawing and plastic arts to everyday life, a model of a Persian kiosk, by Messrs Collinot and Adalbert de Beaumont. Their cover plates, their fountains, their vases, on which garlands of flowers run, earned them a gold medal.
As we can see from the study we have just made, the reputation of French earthenware, which was so great at the time when Nevers, Rouen, Moustiers and Sainte-Marie (Basses-Alpes) flourished, may have been neglected for a while; but it is rising from its ashes and, both for domestic use and for monumental ornamentation, it is destined for a brilliant future.
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée