By Karen Knapstein
When is a plate laden with snakes, frogs and lizards an object of admiration, not revulsion? How could a charger filled with snails, bugs and seaweed be an example of opulence? The answer to both questions is when it’s a piece of finely executed Palissy ware.
Palissy Roots in the Renaissance
As a potter, 16th century Renaissance man Bernard Palissy (France, circa 1510-1590) developed a distinctive style of earthenware. In creating naturalistic scenes of plants and animals and finishing them off with polychrome glazes inspired by nature. He called his three-dimensional creations of lifelike flora and fauna “Art of the Earth” and “rustique,” and they came to be known as “rustique figulines.” Recognizing his talent, the queen of France, Catherine de Medici, brought Palissy to Paris and bestowed upon him the title “The King’s Inventor of Rustic Figurines.”
Since their incarnation, Palissy-style wares have been creating an air of extravagance. Alexander Dumas, who began writing “The Count of Monte Cristo” in serial form in 1844, mentions Palissy wares by name when describing the luxurious apartment of one of his targets for revenge. In part, Dumas describes Albert de Morcerf’s living quarters:
The rest of the furniture of this privileged apartment consisted of old cabinets, filled with Chinese porcelain and Japanese vases, Lucca della Robbia faience, and Palissy platters; of old arm-chairs, in which perhaps had sat Henry IV. or Sully, Louis XIII. or Richelieu …1
Unique Subjects of Master Molds
Palissy wares are realistic enough that they seem ready to hop, slither or crawl from whatever platform on which they lay. The observer can see each scale on a snake, each rib in a fish’s fin, each vein running through a leaf. This is because the figures are often cast from master molds created from creatures themselves. The wares often exhibit extraordinary detail and complexity. Although we may see closely matched pairs of urns, vases, or platters, subtle differences in glazing, placements and textures, assure each piece is unique.
The use of many individual molds for components means creating Palissy style wares is far more complicated than many other ceramics. Geoffrey Luff has been creating Palissy style ceramics in the heart of the Loire Valley in France since 1993. He says each piece takes 10 to 15 days over a period of two to three months to complete because of drying time. Individual molds are used to create each element, which then becomes part of the composition. The artist reports he has made more than 500 molds for creating individual elements. He says, “My first mould was of a frog and that mould is still producing frogs today; it must have made over one thousand five hundred frogs.”
Hands-On Subject Wrangling
Luff continues: “As you can imagine, getting hold of a frog in France is relatively easy, but some of
the other creatures were a bit more difficult. I have to thank the cat for catching the lizard. But in doing so the lizard ejected its tail so now on many of my pieces you will see a little leaf covering the joint. In fact putting little bits of leaf over lizards’ tails is quite a common feature on both 16th and 19th century Palissy ware.”
“The hardest (creature) to get was the viper,” he muses. “Not that they are particularly rare but their habitat makes them hard to see and they can be dangerous – not to mention protected.” Whereas Luff relies on road kills for the majority of his creatures, he theorizes, “Palissy must have gone out to capture his creatures himself or had people who collected them for him. Interestingly enough, you can still see to this day on plates that are over 400 years old that mark on the snake made by the stick used to dispatch it,” which is a statement that gives new meaning to the phrase ‘impressions of the past.’
Appeal of Modern Examples of Palissy Ware
On the secondary market, Geoffrey Luff’s 20th and 21st century pieces are within reach of many collectors. One doesn’t have to search long to find them, either. In October 2015, one of Luff’s Palissy ware centerpieces (with minor damage), sold through Heritage Auctions in Dallas for $1,563 including the buyer’s premium. No two views are the same for the centerpiece, which measures approximately 14 by 18 by 18 inches. It is in the form of a modeled and textured oak stump, rock, and fern, with applied snakes, frogs, salamanders, butterflies and lizards.
More recently, in Strawser Auctions’ Fall Majolica Auction, held October 28-29, 2016, a Geoffrey Luff Palissy round plaque with frog, dragonfly and other plants and creatures, 7 1/2 inches in diameter, sold for $197 including buyer’s premium.
Although Bernard Palissy died in the dungeons of the Bastille more than four centuries ago, the style of naturalistic pottery he first created continues to be appreciated, emulated, and eagerly sought by collectors. Bernard Palissy’s contemporaries became so adept at recreating his style, that it’s difficult to identify which 16th-century works in the rustique manner are from Palissy’s workshop, and which are imitators.
France and Portugal Leading the Charge Today
Majolica aficionado Nicolaus Boston has been buying, selling and studying majolica and Palissy ware for 34 years, and for the last three, he has been partnering with Michael Strawser of Strawser Auctions to hold an annual majolica auction. Combined, the partners have ceramics experience totalling nearly 70 years and have a worldwide reputation as the top experts in their field.
Boston explains there are many different manufacturers in the world of Palissy, with most being in France or Portugal; however, some are more pursued than others. Boston reveals, “The most important 19th century Palissy revivalist and commands the highest prices, would be Jean-Charles Avisseau from Tours in France, who is recognised as being the potter to rediscover the lost secrets of Bernard Palissy, who took them to his grave two hundred years earlier. Palissy himself referred to his work as creating ‘Art of the Earth’ and it was Avisseau whose creations were true Palissy ‘Art of the Earth.’”
Practitioners of the ‘Art of the Earth’
He reveals other noteworthy French potters: “Joseph Landais (Avisseau’s cousin) is also a golden name for Palissy collectors, having produced high quality, highly glazed basins of fish, snakes and crustacea, the basin modelled as a large, emerald green leaf. Alfred Renoleau, another Palissy master, created huge oval dishes and plaques covered in huge lobsters, crabs and fish, all extremely life like, looking like they have just be pulled from the sea.”
“The Paris-based Palissy producers worked in a distinctive style, the main two companies being Thomas Sargent and Victor Barbizet. Unless signed, only the expert would be able to tell them apart,” he explains. “Both companies however, tend to use a deep, highly glazed cobalt blue ground, with fine quality, creatures, leaves and shells. Their work is very well modelled, with highly defined scales on the fish bodies, having been produced by pressing lace onto the fish bodies when the clay was still wet.”
Welcome Response to Palissy at Auction
In Strawser Auctions’ October 2016 majolica auction, a lot of two large Victor Barbizet Palissy
planters, circa 1875, sold for $6,765, including buyer’s premium. Each rectangular planter, measuring 16 1/2 inches wide by 10 inches high, was profusely decorated with leaves, fauna, shells, mushrooms, frogs, nests of birds eggs and snakes, all creating a sumptuous Art of the Earth scene.
In April 2016, a Jean-Charles Avisseau Palissy ware platter with central decorations of crossed fish and eel, with a crayfish to the border, sold through Skinner, Inc., for $2,460 including buyer’s premium. The large, 20 1/2-inch-long platter was inscribed “Avisseau Tours 1862,” and exhibited scattered minor restorations and firing lines.
A recent Heritage Auctions sale saw a 19th century French Palissy style glazed earthenware platter, 14 inches high by 17 1/4 inches wide, sell for $1,125 including buyer’s premium. The oval platter in organic color scheme featured applied frogs, vines, flowers, lizards, mushrooms, and foliage to the rim, with a winding snake applied to the center.
Primer of Modern Palissy Ceramist
Boston says 19th century French ceramist Georges Pull is also important because Pull’s work is of exceptional quality. It can be found in museums around the world. Boston explains, “Pull’s work was produced as a compliment and celebration of Palissy’s work”; Pull prided himself on having created pieces that, unless his mark ‘Pull’ was not impressed on the back, no expert could tell the difference between his work and Bernard Palissy’s 16th century originals.”
Palissy wares from Portuguese ceramists also rate highly with collectors. Mainly produced in Caldas Da Rainha, Boston says Portuguese Palissy can often be distinguished from its French counterparts by the ground; Portuguese examples are often covered in a green “grass,” created “by forcing clay through a mincing machine rather like producing spaghetti.”
“The two most famous and collected Portuguese Palissy companies were Manuel Mafra and José Cuhna. Their work is very similar, generally circular plates covered in green grass which are decorated with snakes, lizards, shells, moths, worms, frogs,” Boston explains.
In September 2016, Carlsen Gallery in Freehold, New York, sold three Portuguese majolica Palissy style plaques by José A. Cunha (one 11 1/2-inch diameter, two 9 1/2-inch diameter) as a single lot. Exhibiting fine, naturalistic details, as well as the aforementioned grounds of green “grass,” the trio sold for $2,280 including buyer’s premium. Each bore the impressed “Jose A. Cunha / Portugal / Caldas Rainha” mark in oval, and each was finished in “earth-tone” glazes of yellow, green and brown palette.
Palissy Market Positive
He says prices “remained poor for five or six years.” However, sales results are again on the upswing. “Our ‘Fine Majolica For The Connoisseur’ auctions, the first in November 2013, have been slowly putting majolica and Palissy back on the map. We have been creating new customers, re-igniting collectors of old, servicing existing collectors and now also selling to museums. The ‘Fine Majolica For The Connoisseur’ auctions have been positive for the market, prices have now climbed three years in a row with some prices now being on a par, and occasionally higher, than those pre market collapse. We feel the future is very bright!”
When considering collecting Palissy wares, Karen Rigdon, Director of Silver, Decorative Arts & Design at Heritage Auctions, Dallas, advises, “When collecting pieces by the top makers it is always important to know their work, or have a trusted advisor.”
Additionally, “The pieces need to be handled and cleaned with great care. Earthen ware damages easily, and of course with such thinness to the cast members that stick out at every angle, loss is common,” Rigdon cautions.
Palissy wares can be considered the outcome when natural science and fine art meet. The complicated structure and fine details are amazing and can be overwhelming. When observing a piece of Palissy ware, you really have to study it from all angles to truly see and appreciate the craftsmanship and the details. It’s impossible to take it all in at a single glance – there’s always more than meets the eye – so, like nature, observe with interest and touch with caution.
1Alexandre Dumas, “The Count of Monte Cristo,” chapter 39: The Guests.