Henry Clay Frick’s Limoges Enamels

A New Book and Installation Highlight Founder’s Distinguished Collection

This article is reprinted from the Fall 2015 issue of the Members’ Magazine.

book cover of Limoges Enamels with male with long mustache and hat on blue background


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.

Casket: Putti and Mottoes of Courtly Love from Middle Ages, painted enamel on copper, partly gildedEnamels are created by fusing powdered glass to a copper sheet. Metal oxides are added to the clear, molten glass to produce a variety of colors, which are affected by both the composition of the glass and the concentration of the metal oxide used, as well as the atmospheric conditions in the kiln. Enamels are fired multiple times, requiring enormous skill to control the different temperatures necessary for the various colors and layers. During the Middle Ages, the production at Limoges centered on liturgical vessels such as pyxes and reliquaries, fostered by the city’s proximity to monasteries, which patronized the art form, and its location on pilgrimage routes to sites of devotion in Spain and Italy. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Christian scenes were often incorporated into portable altars. The durable nature of enamel was especially suited for altars with wings, which could be protectively closed to make the objects compact and easily transportable. In addition, their small size made it easier for the viewer to take in multiple scenes or a continuous narrative. A double-tiered triptych, for example, follows Christ’s life and resurrection through six separate scenes. Beginning with the upper-left plaque, Christ is depicted bearing the cross and returning to Veronica the veil she had offered him earlier, which now features an impression of his face.Double-Tiered Triptych: Scenes from the Passion of Christ, mid-sixteenth century, painted enamel on copper, partly gilded Other scenes depict (clockwise from top center) the Crucifixion, the Harrowing of Hell, the Resurrection, the Entombment, and the Descent from the Cross. The triptych is signed by Nardon Pénicaud, the patriarch of one of the most prominent families of enamelers in Limoges. Despite the signature, however, the triptych was probably produced by a younger member of Pénicaud’s workshop, possibly after the master’s death, in 1541. Its brilliance was achieved through one of the most refined techniques of enameling, in which silver foil was placed beneath the translucent enamel to produce a lustrous sheen. Smaller pieces of foil, called paillons, highlight specific areas, such as the mulberry and green panels of Christ’s tomb.

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.

Pair of Saltcellars: Scenes from the Story of Orpheus, late sixteenth century, painted enamel on copper, partly gildedSaltcellars were also popular, although they likely were not intended to hold salt but instead were displayed on tables and sideboards during banquets. These two are marked with the initials 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.plaque, The Triumph of the Eucharist and the Catholic Faith, ca. 1561–62, painted enamel on copper, partly gilded The patriarch of the Guise family, Claude de Lorraine, stands at the center of the scene, with his hand on the hilt of his sword, while his wife, Antoinette de Bourbon, rides in a chariot pulled by doves, holding a chalice with the host. Their son, François de Lorraine, turns the wheel of his mother’s chariot to crush the Protestant heretics beneath (labeled as such by now-faded gold lettering). The identities of the remaining two figures, both prelates, remain under debate. The figure in red could be Jean de Guise, brother of Claude and the first cardinal of Lorraine, while the figure at far right is likely Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine, an influential church leader and orator. The finely detailed portraits in the foreground come into sharp focus against the impressionistic landscape beyond, attesting to Limousin’s skill and artistry. As both a group portrait and allegory of faith at a moment of religious conflict, his composition is unusual among Limoges enamels.

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 shop.frick.org.

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

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