Henry Clay Frick’s Limoges Enamels:
A New Book and Installation Highlight Founder’s Distinguished Collection
In 1916, Henry Clay Frick converted his private office at his home on Fifth Avenue into a gallery for the collection of Limoges enamels that he had purchased from the estate of J. Pierpont Morgan for the then-staggering sum of $1,157,500. What was so compelling about these delicate, jewel-like objects that Frick paid such a high price and was willing to sacrifice his sanctuary for their display? The Frick, in association with D. Giles Ltd., London, has recently published my book focusing on this remarkable collection, which constitutes a comprehensive survey of the genre and represents most of the medium’s notable workshops. In conjunction with this publication, a new installation in the Enamels Room presents some of the museum’s finest Limoges works together with notable examples of glazed earthenware and bronze sculpture from the same period.
The painted enamels of Limoges — named for the French town in which they were produced — are one of the distinctive art forms of the French Renaissance. They were coveted for centuries by European collectors, including Paul Durand-Ruel and Sir Richard Wallace. Henry Walters in Baltimore and J. P. Morgan were among the first to collect Limoges enamels in America. When Frick acquired his enamels, fellow American collectors included William Randolph Hearst (whose works are now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Philip and Robert Lehman (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Charles Phelps and Anna Sinton Taft (now in the Taft Museum, Cincinnati). Along with collections in London, Paris, and a few other centers, the Frick stands today as one of the major museums housing important Limoges enamels.
Techniques developed during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries permitted a wider range of opaque and translucent colors. Enamelers increasingly exploited the overlay of one color on another in thin layers or, with subtle shading, manipulated them to reveal what lay beneath. For instance, to achieve a more naturalistic flesh tone, early enamelers sometimes applied mulberry beneath the white to create warm undertones. To enhance details in the composition or delineate features in the face, a technique known as enlevage was employed, in which white powdered glass was manipulated with a fine tool to expose the darker fired layer beneath. Grisaille was also used to produce subtle modeling in shades of gray. Final touches of oxide color or gilding, brushed on and lightly fired, added expression and richness.
Over time, workshops began to produce objects other than those intended for religious devotion. They made jewelry, belt buckles, and other pieces for personal adornment that were prized throughout Europe, in addition to portraits and domestic items such as caskets, basins and ewers, and tableware. These items were often decorated with subjects from mythology or, occasionally, chivalric or courtly subjects. The small casket is decorated with twelve plaques that depict naked putti playing musical instruments, fighting mock battles, and engaging in various romantic pursuits; each scene is accompanied by phrases in old French on love’s joys and cruelties. The plaque at lower left depicts a putto presenting his beloved with a casket while a third figure holding an arrow looks on, along with the words le prins de bone foy (take it in good faith). Some two dozen similar caskets in various collections testify to the popularity of these decorative boxes, which may have served as love tokens or nuptial gifts. On the casket’s lid, the thirteenth plaque incorporates a roundel of Lucretia, the ancient heroine who chose suicide over dishonor.sc for Suzanne de Court, who came from a long line of enamel artisans and is the only known female enameler working in Limoges during the sixteenth century. The saltcellars are decorated after woodcuts first published in Lyon in 1557, illustrating Ovid’s Metamorphoses, although the artist’s sense of whimsy animates every scene. Here, de Court requires the viewer to fully rotate the saltcellars to complete the story of Orpheus. On one, the frenzied women of Cicones attack him in retaliation for his decision to avoid mortal women after the loss of his beloved wife, Eurydice. Despite their wrath, Orpheus calmly plays his lyre, the magic of his music stopping their spears, which de Court shows lying harmlessly at his feet. The story continues on the second saltcellar, with Orpheus slain and his severed head thrown into the River Hebrus. In the final scene, Apollo turns to stone the dragon that sought to devour Orpheus’s head. De Court’s favorite colors of emerald green, mauve, and turquoise glow over silver paillons; gilded patterns are scattered over a black background; and white flesh tones are highlighted with pink.
Likenesses of oneself, family members, and famous men and women were keenly desired during this period. While many Limoges portraits were miniature (the size of playing cards), others were larger, approaching or equaling the size of the small painted portraits on panel that were prevalent during this era. Among Limoges enamelers, Léonard Limousin produced the most portraits — some 130 are known — and is the most celebrated portraitist in the medium. As early as 1536, he made a portrait of the queen of France, Eleanor of Austria. The Frick holds five portraits attributed to Limousin, in addition to a rare group portrait, The Triumph of the Eucharist and the Catholic Faith, which includes precise miniatures of members of the Guise family, a powerful Catholic presence in France during the mid-sixteenth century.
The Triumph of the Eucharist plaque depicts the righteousness of the doctrine of transubstantiation — the belief in the transformation of the bread and wine of the Eucharist into the actual body and blood of Christ — a central issue of the Counter-Reformation and French Wars of Religion.
While the glorious enamel tradition of the Renaissance began to wane during the seventeenth century, it was revived in the nineteenth century, especially in Paris, with a highly proficient technical style, at a moment when many of the early enamels were restored and when the collecting of these works began in earnest. It was during this period that the foundation was laid for Henry Clay Frick’s purchases, which continue to delight visitors to this day.
Limoges Enamels at The Frick Collection, by Director Ian Wardropper with an illustrated glossary by Associate Conservator Julia Day, is published in association with D Giles Ltd., London. It is available for $19.95 in the Museum Shop or online at frick.org/shop.
Attributed to Colin Nouailher (active 1539–after 1571), Casket: Putti and Mottoes of Courtly Love, ca. 1545. Painted enamel on copper, partly gilded. The Frick Collection
Workshop of Nardon Pénicaud (ca. 1470–1541), Double-Tiered Triptych: Scenes from the Passion of Christ, mid-sixteenth century. Painted enamel on copper, partly gilded. The Frick Collection
Suzanne de Court (active late sixteenth century–early seventeenth century), Pair of Saltcellars: Scenes from the Story of Orpheus, late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. Painted enamel on copper, partly gilded. The Frick Collection
Léonard Limousin (or Limosin, ca. 1505–1575/77) The Triumph of the Eucharist and the Catholic Faith, ca. 1561–62. Painted enamel on copper, partly gilded. The Frick Collection
All photographs by Michael Bodycomb