Palissy The Potter
Posted by Admin on January 21 2013 08:35:05

Polissy The Potter


Polissy The PotterOne of the chief attributes of genius is said to be the faculty for hard work, untiring energy and intense application. If this be true it was never more clearly exemplified than in the life and character of Palissy the famous French potter. Bernard Palissy was born in 1510, in the province of Perigord, in France. His father was a brick maker, and Palissy first worked at making tiles, bricks, and earthenware. He quieted his father's kiln and apprenticed himself to some glass-workers. The glass manufacture then included, not only melting the glass, and cutting it into pan~ but also covering them with paintings for the cathedral windows. In bis desire for improvement, he spent all his leisure time in reading such instructive books as he could get, studying geometry, botany and other branches of natural history.


Palissy, according to the custom of the time, worked his way from town to town until he reached Tarbes, built on a plateau facing the Pyrenees, in which glass-painting then flourished. A mere artisan when he entered the labyrinth of the Pyrenees, he left it a painter and a poet. He soon tired of the dull routine of the workshop at Tarbes, and traveled as a draughtsman and modeler of images through all the provinces of France from Marseilles to Flanders. His wanderings over the Alps and Pyrenees, and the interest he took in the various qualities of the earths, rocks, sands, and waters in their relation to his business, had made him a naturalist To the solitary man of genius, nature was both a teacher a treasury. Palissy returned borne, married and established his family on a little property acquired by persevering labor. In a few years he was under the necessity of obtaining further employment, and became a land-surveyor under the government in 1543. One day there was shown to him a richly enameled cup of Italian manufacture, perhaps the work of one of the successors of Luca della Robbia. The art of enameling was at that time entirely unknown in France, and the idea occurred to Palissy that if he could discover the secret of making these cups he would gain a fortune. He already knew something of the methods of painting and firing colors in glass, and he had learned something of the potter's art. But how to produce that white enamel to cover the clay vessel and form the ground for the ornamental designs was a hidden mystery.


For several years Palissy toiled at this problem, and in spite of successive failures, gradually became more absorbed in his search. At first he still provided food and necessaries for his family; but afterward he seemed not to care that they were in rags and starving. His wife reproached him for his neglect j but his mind was so infatuated with bis experiments that he broke up his furniture to supply the fuel for the kilns. He has written the pathetic story of his struggles, failures, destitution and final triumph. It forms one of the most thrilling autobiographies in any language. After sixteen years of painful devotion to this research, Palissy's blind gropings were rewarded with success; he was able to make the simple white enamel on earthenware. With this foundation he was soon able to execute artistic designs which secured the approval of the best judges.


Then came the reward for his long years of toil and dogged perseverance. Fortune smiled upon bis labors, and fashion made his works desired by the wealthy. The price that he received for his enameled ware, his sculpture in clay, raised his family from their misery to comfort and wealth. His productions, imperfect at first, but in which was seen the vigor of a new art, original and untrammeled by traditions, soon adorned mansions and palaces. Great men received him little men envied him. Catharine de Medici gave him a site

for his furnaces on the ground since occupied by the palace of the Tuileries. Like the princes of her family at Florence, who spent much of their time in the studios and society of artists, she used to visit him at his work. At this happy period of his life Palissy made his numberless masterpieces of porcelain in relief, which, after the lapse of three centuries, sell for their weight in gold. One room in the Louvre is almost entirely devoted to the delicate wonders of Palissy. The neighborhood of the works of Raphael and Michael Angelo does not eclipse the glory of the potter. Other masterpieces of Palissy adorn the private collections of such connoisseurs as Prince Soltikoff and Baron Rothschild.


There is another aspect of the character and acquirement's of Palissy which must be mentioned his success in the world of literature. The first of his works was published anonymously about 1545'; his second about 1560, and the third and last about 1580. They have given the poor potter rank as one of the greatest writers of French prose; he is classed with Montaigue, Rousseau, Bossuct, and Lamartine.


As he advanced in years, Palissy gave thought more to the future life than to the present. Heretofore the love of nature had filled his soul; he enjoyed the solitude of the forest, the mountain-peak, and the sea-shore.He had learned the wonderful secrets of nature, to the glory of Him whom he calls the Great Mechanician," the great Constructor of the universe. He thought he had found God, and he lived in perpetual converse with the Invisible Creator of all things visible. A great religious interest spread over Europe, stirring the hearts of all who were earnest in seeking after God. The faith proclaimed by Luther and Calvin became the life principle of men of all degrees. Amid the sanguinary conflicts which soon were aroused by the struggle of the New Faith with the Old, Palissy adhered to the Reformation. Of the massacre he says, "I retired secretly to my house that I might not see the murders and the robberies which took place. Nevertheless, for two days it seemed to me as if hell were loose and all the demons had gone abroad to ravage the earth. From my house I saw soldiers running through the streets sword in hand, crying where are they?' Palissy's workshop was broken into by the rabble, and he was compelled to hide. Had not his death involved the extinction of a new valuable art, he would undoubtedly have perished. In 1555 he was saved by the king's lieutenant, who communicated to the Marshal de Montmorenci the peril of the ingenious artist. An edict was issued in the king's name, appointing Palissy maker of rustic figures to the queen. Jean Goujon, the Michael Angelo of France, more envied because then more celebrated though now less mentioned, was struck down while working all the Caryatides of the Louvre i with his chisel yet in his hand, he fell a corpse at the foot of the marble to which he was giving life. The protection of the court saved Palissy.


In the Bastile, in which De Montmorenci and his other patrons among the Catholic party had confined him, Palissy was safe, although the Duke of Mayenne had to resort to the strategy of delaying his trial, for which an infonner, a creature of the Duke of Guise, was urgent 1589. His patron, the King, took pity on the aged man who was about to die in his fetters. Henry III. visited him in prison and said to him, "I am compelled, my worthy friend, in spite of myself, to imprison you. You have been now forty-five years in the service of my mother and myself; we have suffered you to retain your religion amid fire and slaughter. Pressed as I am by the Guises and my own people, I cannot prevent them from putting you to death unless you will be converted." Sire," the aged man replied,I am ready to give up the remainder of my life for the honor of God. You say you pity me it is for me to pity you who have said I am compelled. ' It was not spoken like a king, sire and they are the words which neither you, nor the Guises, nor the people shall ever make me utter. I can die! The king's courtiers were angry. Here is insolence!" they exclaimed i Hone would suppose he had read Seneca and was parodying the words of the philosopher, I He who can die need never be constrained.'" Henry Valois would not give up Palissy to the Guises, but permitted the voluntary martyr to end his days in the Bastile 1589. " Bernard de Palissy is the most perfect model of a work man. It is by his example, rather than by his works, that he has deserved a place for himself among the men who have ennobled humanity. In seeking the perfection of Art, which hides itself that it may be discovered, and which holds itself back that it may be discovered by force, he meets with misery, unbelief, and the scorn of his neighbors, he burns his house to feed his last furnace; he forces his inventive genius; finally, he triumphs, he becomes illustrious. He devotes his youth to trade; he sacrifices his house for his art; he gives up his old age, his liberty and his life to his God ; he flies from his dungeon to heaven on the wings of celestial hope; he leaves behind him masterpieces, and bequeaths immortal examples of patience, of perseverance, of gentle dignity and virtue to workmen of all professions.




I had no means of learning the art of pottery in any shop. I began to search for enamels without knowing of what materials they were composed, as a man that gropes his way in the dark. I pounded all the materials I could think of, I bought a quantity of earthen pots, and breaking them to pieces, I covered them with the substances I had ground, making a memorandum of the drugs that I had used in each; then, having built a furnace according to my fancy, I put these pieces to bake, to see if my drugs would give any color. But because I had never seen earthenware baked, I never could succeed. So, being oftentimes thus disappointed, with great cost and labor, r was all day pounding and grinding new materials, and building new furnaces at a great expense in money.


When I spent several years in these attempts. I again bought earthen vessels, and, having broken them up, covered three or four hundred of the pieces with experimental enamels, and carried them to a pottery. with a request to the potters to allow me to bake these experiments therein. I was beginning to lose courage, and, as a last attempt, had gone to a glass-house with more than three hundred different samples; there was found one of these samples which became melted within four hours after being in the furnace; which gave me such joy, that I thought I had then discovered the perfection of white enamel.


I was so foolish in those days, that, as soon as I had produced the while enamel, I set about making earthen vessels, although I had never learned the earthenware manufacture and having spent months in constructing these vessels, I began to build a furnace like a glass-furnace, which I built with unspeakable toil, for I bad to do the masonry by myself, and to mix my mortar, and even draw the water for tempering it.


I baked my ware for the first firing but at the second firing. I had to work for the space of more than a month, night and day, to grind the materials of which I had made this beautiful white enamel at the glass-house; and when I had ground these, I covered therewith the vessels that I had made which done, I lighted my furnace at the two doors, as I had seen the glassmeu do; but it was unfortunate for me, because, although I was six days and six nights at the furnace without ceasing to throw wood in at the two mouths, I could not make the enamel melt, and I was reduced to despair. Yet, although I was exhausted with fatigue. I began to grind. material, without, however, allowing my furnace to cool.


When I had thus mixed my enamel, I was obliged to go and purchase more pots, inasmuch as I had consumed all the vessels I had made; and having covered the pots with the enamel, I put them into the furnace, still keeping up the full heat of the fire. My wood having run short, I was obliged to burn the stakes from my garden fence, which being consumed, I had to burn the tables and boards of my house, in order to melt my second composition. I was in such anguish as I cannot describe, for I was exhausted with the work and heat of the furnace. It was more than a month since I had a dry shirt on. Then my neighbors laughed at me, and reported about the town that I burned my flooring-boards, and by such means they made me lose my credit and pass for a fool.


Others said that I sought to coin false money, which was an evil report that made me shake in my shoes. I was in debt in several places. No person helped me; but, on the contrary, they laughed at me, saying, 'serve him right to die of hunger, for he neglects his business. Nevertheless, there remained some hope which sustained me, inasmuch as the last trials had turned out pretty well; and I the though that I knew enough to gain my livelihood at it, although I was very far therefrom.


When I had rested some time, regretting that no one had pity upon me; and, having thought that I should be too long in making the whole charge for the furnace with my own bands, hired a common potter, and gave him some drawings for him to make vessels from to my order. When we had worked for the space of six months, and the work we had got through was ready to be fired, it became necessary to build a furnace and dismiss the potter, to whom, for want of money, I had to give some of my clothes by way of payment.


Now, as had nothing with which to build my oven, I set to work pulling down the one I had made after the fashion of a glass-furnace, that the materials might serve for the new one. But this furnace had been so very hot for six days and nights, the bricks and mortar thereof had fused and vitrified in such manner that, in breaking it down, my fingers were cut and gashed in so many places that I was obliged to eat my porridge with my hands wrapped in a cloth. When I had pulled down the furnace, I had to build the other. This done, I gave the work the first firing, and then, by borrowing and otherwise, I found means to procure the materials for the enamels to cover it, as it had borne the first firing well. The desire which I felt to succeed in my undertaking made me do things which I should have otherwise thought impossible.


When the colors were ground I covered all my vessels and medallions with the enamel then, having arranged the: whole of it in my furnace, I began to heat it, expecting to make a fortune by the charge. I continued the firing until I had some sign that my enamels had melted. The next day, when I came to draw the charge, having first extinguished the fire, my grief and sadness were so increased that I lost all command. Although my enamels were good and the work sound, nevertheless all accident had happened to the furnace which had spoiled all. It was because the mortar with which I had cemented my furnace was full of pebbles, which, feeling the heat of the fire, split into several pieces. Now when the splinters of said stones flew against my work, the enamel, which had already melted and become sticky, held these stones, and fastened them all over the vases and medallions, which would otherwise have been beautiful.


My charge cost me more than six score crowns. I had borrowed wood and the materials. I kept off' my creditors with the hope of payment from the money to arise from the sale of the goods. Several of them came in the morning when I was going to take the goods out of the oven, thereby redoubling my vexation. Every article was sprinkled with little bits of hint and although the work was in this manner spoiled, yet some desired to purchase it at a low price. But because this would have been a cheapening of my credit, I completely destroyed the whole of the said articles, and went to bed for very sadness, seeing that I had no means of supporting my family. I met with nothing but reproaches at home. My neighbors, who had heard of the business, said I was a madman.


When I had lain some time in bed, and had considered with myse1f that, if a man falleth into a ditch, it is his duty to try to get out of it, I said to myself that all of my losses and risks were past, and that there was no longer anything to prevent my producing good articles i so I set to work, as before, at the former art.


I had a great number of earthen crocks made by certain potters to enclose my vases when I put them into the oven; the idea proved a good one, and I have adhered to it. But I was such a novice that I could not distinguish between too much and too little firing i when I had learned to guard against one danger, another presented itself, which I should never have thought of. At length I found out how to cover vessels with divers enamels mixed like jasper. But when I had discovered the means of making rustic pieces, I was more confounded than before for, having made a certain number of basins, and fired them, some of my enamels turned out beautiful, others badly fused, and others burnt, because they were composed of various materials which were fusible at different heats.


All these defects caused me so much labor and sadness that, before r could make my enamels fusible at the same degree of heat, I thought I should have passed even the doors of the grave for, from working at such matters, in the space of more than ten years I had so fallen away that I could meet with no peace in my own house, or do anything that was thought right. Nevertheless, I always contrived to make some ware of diverse colors which afforded me some sort of a living. The hope which supported me gave me such courage for my work, that oftentimes, to entertain persons who came to see me, I would endeavor to laugh, although within me I felt very sad ..... And it has happened to me several times, that, having left my work, and having nothing dry about me, I would go staggering about like one drunk with wine.


Palissy The Potter