1902 Encyclopedia > Bernard Palissy

Bernard Palissy
French potter and craftsman

BERNARD PALISSY (1510-1589), was bom in 1510 at La Chapelle Biron, a village in the province of Perigord, France. His parents were poor, and at an early age he was thrown upon his own resources for even the most elementary education. With indomitable energy he read all the books within his reach, and, aided by naturally keen powers of observation, gained a knowledge, remarkable for that time, of chemistry, geology, botany, and other branches of natural history. Bernard Palissy's father was a painter of stained glass, and taught his son the practice of this important craft; he thus became a skilful draughtsman, learned the manipulation of colours, and gained that train-ing of the eye which in after years helped to bring him success and reward as a potter. After a period of travel-ling apprenticeship, Palissy married and settled in Saintes. At first he practised his craft of glass-painter, varied by portrait-painting and land-surveying. The search for subjects for his window-paintings led Palissy to extend his already wide course of study to history and classical mythology. He had not long been married when the whole course of his life was changed by a new ambition. He happened to see a fine piece of enamelled pottery, prob-ably majolica ware from Italy, and thereupon resolved to spend any time and labour to discover for himself the secret of the beautiful enamelled surface that he admired so much in that piece of pottery. His trade as a glass-painter had taught him something of the methods of paint-ing and firing enamel colours, and at the neighbouring village of La Chapelle des Pots he learned the rudiments of the potter's art in its simplest form; but this was all the help he had. He knew nothing whatever of the manu-facture of the finer sorts of faience, or of the composition of the white enamel which was to form the covering of his clay vessels and the ground for his coloured ornament.

Year after year, through a succession of utter failures, and almost without a gleam of hope, he laboured on, working often blindly and at random in search for the secret of the white enamel. Almost starving for want of food, his wife in rags bitterly and not unreasonably reproaching him for his cruelty, his furniture broken up to feed his kilns, and without a hand to help, Palissy struggled on for nearly sixteen years before success came. A truly tragic story is this, for after all it was no new discovery that Palissy ever reached or even aimed at.
The secret of the white enamel was known to every potter of northern Italy, and there, if he had but known, he might have learned that process on the rediscovery of which he wasted so many of the best years of his life. All those struggles and failures are most vividly told by Palissy himself in one of the most thrilling pieces of autobiography ever written. The nearest parallel to it is perhaps (widely different as the two men are) that of his contemporary the Florentine Cellini.

For a few years Palissy enjoyed untroubled reward for his years of toil and unflinching constancy of purpose. His works were bought and appreciated by the queen, Catherine de' Medici, and many of the great nobles of her court, who were eager for specimens of his skill. But before long Palissy, who had always been something of a theologian and a constant Bible student, became irresistibly enthralled by the new doctrines of the Refor-mation, and enrolled himself an enthusiastic member of the Huguenot party. He could do nothing by halves; he devoted himself heart and soul to the cause, and, in 1558, while engaged in making plaques, tiles, and rustic figures in faience to decorate the Constable de Montmorency's Chateau d'Ecouen, Palissy was arrested and imprisoned at Bordeaux, while his kilns and the materials of his trade were destroyed by command of the magistrates.

Through the intervention of the French court Palissy was, after a time, liberated, and about 1563, under the protection of the king, set up his pottery-works in Paris, on a plot of ground afterwards occupied by part of the gardens of the Tuileries. Here Palissy lived and worked in comparative peace and prosperity till 1588, when a fresh outburst of religious zeal against the Huguenots proved too strong even for the royal patronage, which for so long had sheltered him. He was thrown into the Bastille, and, though Henry III., who was then king, offered him rewards and freedom if he would recant, Palissy preferred death to falsehood. Henry III., though not unmindful of the forty-five years during which Palissy had faithfully served the court of France, was too timid or too weak to save his old servant, then nearly eighty years of age. Palissy was condemned to death, but died shortly after, in one of the dungeons of the Bastille, in the year 1589. This martyr's death was a not unfitting end for one whose whole life had been a sacrifice to noble aims, and who, years before, had suffered a protracted martyrdom in the to him sacred cause of art.

Palissy's Pottery.—Though very varied in design, Palissy's pot-tery is for the most part executed after one technical process. Hard well-burnt earthenware, sometimes fired at so high a temper-ature as to have almost a metallic ring, was covered with a white enamel, formed of the usual ingredients of glass, to which opacity and creamy whiteness were given by the addition of an oxide of tin. On this wdiite ground various colours were applied in enamel-pigments, and the whole finally covered with a thin plumbo-vitreous glaze. The potter's wheel was but little, if at all, used by Palissy, who, in his pieces, aimed less at purity and beauty of outline than at elaborate surface-decoration in high relief, formed by pressing the clay into a mould.

Palissy's best-known productions are large plates, ewers, vases, and other forms, decorated in alto-relief, with very realistic figures of reptiles, fish, insects, shells, plants, and other objects, executed with wonderful truth and accuracy from moulds formed by taking - casts of the objects themselves (see woodcut). Thus we see repro-duced every scale on a snake's or fish's back, and the minutest peculiarities of the fossil shells and living plants which Palissy saw around him and delighted in copying with the scientific accuracy of a student of natural history and geology. Casts from these objects were fixed on to a metal dish or vase of the shape required, and a fresh cast from the whole formed a mould from which Palissy could reproduce many articles of the same kind. After being covered with the long-sought-for white enamel, the various parts of the piece were painted in realistic colours, or as near truth as could be reached by the pigments Palissy was able to discover and prepare. These colours were mostly various shades of blue from indigo to ultramarine, some rather crude greens, several tints of browns and greys, and, more rarely, yellow. Other pieces, such as dishes and plaques, were ornamented by figure subjects treated after the same fashion, generally Scriptural scenes or subjects from classical mythology. These were in many cases copied from works in sculpture by contemporary artists.

Another class of designs used by Palissy were plates, tazze and the like, with geometrical patterns moulded in relief and pierced through, forming a sort of open network. Perhaps the most suc-cessful 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

Rustic Piate by Palissy.

celebrated. These are in very slight relief, and are executed with cameo-like finish, mostly of good design, after the style of the Italian silversmiths of the 16th century. Palissy's ceramic repro-ductions of these metal plates are not improved by the colours with which he picked out the designs.

Some enamelled and painted earthenware statuettes, full of life and expression, have been attributed to Palissy; but it is doubtful whether he ever worked in the round. On the whole his produc-tions cannot be assigned a very high rank as works of art, though they are certainly remarkable as objects of curiosity and marvels of ingenious skill. They have always been highly valued, and in the 17th century attempts were made both at Delft and Lambeth to copy his " rustic " plates 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—sliowing them to be honest copies, not attempts at forgery, such as have been produced in the present century.

The best collections of Palissy ware are those in the museums of the Louvre, the Hôtel Cluny, and Sevres ; and in England that at Narford Hall, with a few specimens in the South Kensington and British Museums.

As an author Palissy was perhaps even more successful than as a potter. A very high position among French writers is assigned to him by Lamartine (B. Palissy, 8vo, Paris, 1852). He wrote on a great variety of subjects, such as agriculture, natural philosophy, religion, and especially his VArt de terre, in which he gives an account of his processes and how he discovered them. A complete edition of his works was published by P. Antoine Cap, L'Oeuvres Complètes de B. Palissy, Paris, 1844.

See Morley, Life of Palissy, 1855; Marryat, Pottery, 1850, pp. 31 sq.; Dumesnil, B. Palissy, le potier de terre, 1851 ; Tainturier, Terres Êmaillées de Palissy, 1863; Delécluze,. B. Palissy, 1838; Enjubault, L'Art céramique de B. Palissy, 1858; Audiat, Étude sur la vie . . . de B. Palissy, 1868; Delange, Monographie de Vœuvre de B. Palissy, 1862. For Palissy as a Huguenot see Rossignol, Les Prolestants illustres, No. iv,, 1861. (J. H. M.)

The above article was written by: Prof. J. H. Middleton.

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