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On our recent buying trip to France, while visiting the Marche des Puces (flea market) in Paris, we found a vaisselier (cupboard) laden with different styles of French faience. As we looked through all this brightly colored pottery, it occurred to us what a long, rich, important tradition the faience-producing cities of France have in making this beautifully painted earthenware.

What is faience, exactly? It is a type of pottery covered with a tin enamel glaze. (Remember, Palissy Ware?) After being painted, the pottery is fired in a kiln at extremely high temperature to harden the glaze into a glass like substance. It is a process perfected in the 15th century by the Italians who called it “maiolica.” Itinerant Italian potters carried their knowledge to France and Germany- and to Holland where it was called “Delft”.

One reason for the popularity of faience in France was Louis XIV’s edit, at the beginning of the 18th century, forbidding anyone to own gold or silver tableware. The precious metals were confiscated to bolster both the war effort and the extravagant spending at court. Pottery was a logical substitute, and the traditional shapes of the metalware were copied in faience.

In France, many faienceries (faience factories) were established, the most famous in the towns of Quimper, Never, Rouen, Lyon, Marseilles, and Moustiers. To be successful, the town had to have a ready source of wood for firing the kilns, a river for transportation of the finished product, and a workforce from which to draw.

Among the different towns there were similarities and differences in the faïence production. While each area developed its own style, factories routinely borrowed stylistic elements from other areas, and similarities in color and shape crossed borders. Most plates have graceful, undulating outer edges. The firing process with the enamel glazes and extremely high heat produced the color palette of bright yellows, cobalt blues, reddish oranges, yellowish greens, and black accents on white ground. These are the colors we most associate with faience pottery, although we also find blue and white schemes and others with yellow grounds. In the mid-18th century, a process using lower firing temperatures produced colors that were more subtle.

The mainstay of faience production is utilitarian pottery: plates, pitchers, tureens, bowls, and pharmacy jars. For years, the main consumers were the French themselves; they used the dishes daily. In good economies more decorative and unusual pieces such as commemorative platters and clocks were made, but in a slumping economy these were eliminated first.

The town of Quimper in the northwest province of Brittany has one of the most charming and distinctive styles of faience. Isolated from its neighbors by location and terrain, each town in Brittany developed a distinctive style of dress. (An intricate system of symbols controlled how costumes were worn. For example, a man’s hat brim turned in a certain way signaled whether he was married or available.) By the mid 19th century, these various styles of peasant dress were incorporated into the patterns we associate with Quimper today. Other prevalent designs depicted village artisans such as yarn spinner, fisherman, weavers, and musicians, Religious scenes such as processions and weddings were also favorite subjects.

Also, frequently seen in Quimper plate borders are armorial crests- the most popular being those of Anne of Bretagne, the last duchess of Bretagne (Brittany). She struggled to keep Brittany independent, but she was forced under terms of a lost war to marry the king of France. Hence, her land came under French rule. In her honor, a crest of ermine tails is shown on much Quimper faience.

Our study of faience now takes us to the city of Rouen. The capital of Normandy, in northern France, the city has a fascinating history. Not only has it been a center for the production of faience since the 1520’s, it was here that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Much later, Monet lived nearby in Giverney and his painting “Catherdrales de Rouen” testifies to the city’s fame as the “City of Spires.”

In the early 16th century, a single faience factory was established to produce tiles for murals and floors in many of the Renaissance chateaux being constructed in the area. Other factories came later.

One of the most interesting projects of the Rouen faienceries was a commission from Louis XIV. Inspired by the writings of Jan Nieuhoff, the king decides to build the Trianon de Porcelaine in the Versailles garden. It was a French building in the Chinese style. In 1665, Nieuhoff, an employee of the Dutch East India Company, wrote a travelogue of his trip to China. His depiction of China as an earthly paradise so charmed Louis XIV that the king commissioned a five-story building with balustrades made out of porcelain jars and a roof made from blue-and-white tiles. Unfortunately, the earthen faience from Rouen could not withstand the French winters: eventually, the building fell into ruins.

The motifs used on Rouen faience are different from the peasant motifs associated with Quimper faience or the nature inspired sculptured designs of the Palissy Ware. Although the colors are the same as other tin enamelware (strong yellows, blues, oranges on a white ground), there have been, over time, several distinct styles.

There is plenty of evidence of the Chinese influence sparked both by the writings of Nieuhoff and the support of the king. From 1660 to 1730, small repeating, scalloped motifs called lambrequins were borrowed from the K’ang Hsi designs in China and combines with tendrils for borders and field designs, producing a delicate, symmetrical overall pattern. This became known as the style rayonnant. The style Chinoise, which appeared in 1730, favored scenic Oriental designs of pagodas, dragons, and peacocks, executed in traditional faience colors.

Two patterns original to Rouen were inspired by two very different art forms. L’Ocre Neille utilized closisonne (inlaid enamelwork) to create thick black lines that form patterns on a solid, usually yellow, background. The shapes were swirling arabesques or small geometrics. Ferronieries, however, was inspired by the patterns of metalwork and grilles; if featured a symmetrical but more open and larger-scaled patterns.

The art and production of faience throughout France was affected by factors both local and international. The colors associated with the earthenware were determined by the technical restraints of the tin enamels, and, as technology improved, the number of colors and the complexity of designs also improved. Local forests were needed for a fuel supply. As they were depleted, factories closed.

Cities were known for specific faience motifs, whether inspired by regional costumes, as in Quimper, or by creative factory artists. In Rouen, as communication and trade with neighboring countries expanded, so did outside influences on faience production. The interaction with China had far reaching influences on faience motifs. The importation of English porcelain-much finer in look and decoration- and its popularity in France, began to take a toll on the sale of faience. To compete, some factories tried to modify the traditional look with a more refined product.

Today, however, faience is still being made in France, using patterns and motifs that are hundred of years old. The bold colors and rustic feel complement our casual lifestyle and the popularity of country French design.

*Series published in NFocus magazine April and May 1999.


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