Bernard Palissy, Inventor Of Faience
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
To begin with, Palissy was a worker in stained glass, which, it would seem, ought to have satisfied any artist or artisan as a life work, particularly as he had begun life early in the sixteenth century (1510) when stained glass was still of exceptional beauty. But he yearned for a more robust expression, and when he saw an enameled vase, whose original clay differed from sand, the basic element of glass, he burned with intense desire to do something like it. He was a modernist.
He was also a Protestant, and there is a possibility that since the demand for stained glass emanated usually from the Catholic church, he felt some conscience about supplying it. He has not left us a journal or diary to tell us what helped him to his decision; but it was made.
The next step was to experiment in both clays and enamels, and the experiments used up his savings. His wife was a noisy martyr, and his children pleaded with him to take up more lucrative work. The potter he employed threatened to leave because wages had not been paid, and Palissy obligingly took the clothes off his own back to pay him. The man left anyhow. Palissy turned to his potter's oven and with the obsession which was his, tore up planks from the floor, took off legs from tables and benches and thrust them into the fire. The trellis in the garden had long since gone the same way. Heat was the only comfort the family had; and it was soon to cease, for everything had been burned in order that the pottery might have its enamel.
Fortunately for his biographers, success was achieved at the price of this costly fuel. His cellar, where the oven had its place, echoed one day with a cry of joy as he recognized the work as perfect. His wife came down to see what had happened; she found him gazing at a plate whose brilliant colors were proof of the value of his theories. How she behaved, I do not know, but the King, who was Henry III, behaved quite handsomely and offered him a workshop in the Tuileries which he certainly needed, little being left of his house! After this he was called Bernard of the Tuileries, and if the religious disturbances had not waxed greater, he might have had a comfortable life, since he was a truly erudite person as well as an artist, writing upon such problems as artesian wells, for instance.
However, when Henry promulgated in 1559 his edict against the Protestants, Palissy was dragged off to the Bastille, where he died thirty years later. His stubborn quality, which had been shown in devotion to his task, was shown even more clearly in his refusal to change his religion although Henry III visited him in prison and begged him to do so. The conversation, in which Palissy claimed that he was free while the King was the one in prison, has been retold many times.
Undoubtedly the world owes a great deal to Palissy as an inventor of faience; but what, I ask you, was the state of the mind which chose serpents and eels as the principal decoration of so many of the pieces which are attributed to him in the museums of the world today? He did not have the excuse of the makers of gargoyles, nor did he be-long to the Celtic circle with their druidic decorative art. Personally, I have never cared for Palissy, perhaps because I do not understand him.
But it is worth while visiting the street named after him and looking with respect on No. 24, where he lived for a time. A man's house lives after him in Paris. Nos. 11, 12, and 20 are interesting, too, as old mansions. And in the museums you visit, search out the faience, and you will find his work there. In 1880 a statue was put up in the little garden of St Germain-des-Prés.