Technique and Origin

Faience is the term for tin-glazed earthenware made in France from the late sixteenth century until the end of the eighteenth century. The pieces were either thrown on a potter’s wheel and formed in a mold, or, less frequently, shaped by hand. Because the clay used was naturally porous, it was then covered with a vitreous glaze made of silica (sand) and lead oxide that rendered the vessel impermeable. With the addition of tin oxide, the transparent glaze became opaque white, thus covering the less attractive color of the underlying clay, which ranges from gray to red depending on its origin. Painted decoration composed of metallic oxides was then applied on top of the uniformly white glaze. Faience is typically categorized according to whether it is decorated using the grand feu (high fired) or petit feu (low fired) technique. The pieces in the exhibition were all made with the grand feu technique. With this technique, metal oxides are mixed with water and applied onto the tin-glazed surface before firing at a temperature of about 900 °C (1650 °F). The palette is consequently limited to those oxides that can withstand such heat: cobalt (blue), antimony (yellow), manganese (purple-brown), iron (red-orange), and copper (green). These oxides are absorbed into the unfired glazed surface and permanently fused into the tin-glazed layer upon heating in a kiln.

The first pieces of French faience were made at the end of the sixteenth century, but the technique had been known for centuries. First discovered by Islamic potters about 800 AD in what is modern-day Iraq, it quickly spread as a result of Arab conquests and commercial exchange in the Mediterranean, arriving in Italy during the thirteenth century. The resulting Italian production, known as maiolica, experienced a Golden Age during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with centers in Urbino, Casteldurante, Pesaro, Faenza, Deruta, and Gubbio. Italian Renaissance maiolica elevated tin-glazed earthenware from a sophisticated type of pottery to an ambitious art form that rivaled contemporary silver and ancient ceramics. It also strongly influenced the production of tin-glazed earthenware in France, as reflected in the French word faience, which derives from the northern Italian city of Faenza, an important center of maiolica production.

The production of French faience spans more than two centuries — from its first introduction in Lyon by Italian immigrants in the late sixteenth century to its diffusion throughout the provinces of metropolitan France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A feat of technical achievement, French faience draws inspiration from multiple sources. Its decoration is indebted to maiolica, Asian porcelain, and contemporary engravings and its forms derive mostly from European ceramics and silver.

The seventy-five pieces presented in this exhibition — all of them a promised gift to The Frick Collection — come from the most important private collection of French faience in the world, assembled over the last fifty years by Sidney R. Knafel. Their superior quality belies the fact that French faience was essentially a provincial art, largely patronized and commissioned by a local aristocracy and made far from the centers of political power in Versailles and Paris.

© Christophe Perlès