Palissy – Masters Of Painting

IF the Bastile still existed, no spot within its massive walls would be more worthy of note than the cell wherein Bernard Palissy breathed his last, a victim of religious intolerance. It was in 1589 that the great potter passed away, having, after a life of ennobling toil, reached the age of eighty years. Henry III., the worthless king who left Palissy to die in prison, though his mother, the cruel Catherine de Medicis, had protected the Huguenot potter during the massacre of St. Bartholomew, perished the same year by the dagger of Jacques Clement, a Dominican friar.

Palissy, who was not only an artist, but a chemist, naturalist, botanist, and scientist, and also an author, has left us among his writings a most graphic account of the struggles he underwent in endeavoring to learn the art of making white enamel. He says : ” It is more than five and twenty years since there was shown to me an earthen cup, turned and enamelled with so much beauty, that from that time I entered into controversy with my own thoughts, recalling to mind several suggestions that some people had made to me in fun, when I was painting portraits. Then, seeing that these were falling out of request in the country where I dwelt, and that glass-painting was also little patronized, I began to think that if I should discover how to make enamels I could make earthen vessels and other things very prettily, because God had gifted me with some knowledge of drawing ; and there-after, regardless of the fact that I had no knowledge of clays, I began to seek for the enamels, as a man gropes in the dark. Without having heard of what materials the said enamels were composed, I pounded, in those days, all the substances which I could suppose likely to make anything; and having pounded and ground them, I bought a quantity of earthen pots, and after having broken them in pieces, I put some of the materials that I had ground upon them, and having marked them, I set apart in writing what drugs I had put upon each, as a memorandum ; then, having made a furnace to my fancy, I set the fragments down to bake, that I might see whether my drugs were able to produce some whitish color ; for I sought only after white enamel, because I had heard it said that white enamel was the basis of. all others. Then, because I had never seen earth baked, nor could I tell by what degree of heat the said enamel should be melted, it was impossible for me to get any result in this way, though my chemicals should have been right ; because at one time the mass might have been heated too much, at another time too little ; and when the said materials were baked too little or burnt, I could not at all tell the reason why I met with no success, but would throw blame on the materials, which sometimes, perhaps, were the right ones, or at least could have afforded me some hint for the accomplishment of my intentions, if I had been able to manage the fire in the way that my materials required.. But again, in working thus, I committed a fault still grosser than that above named ; for in putting my trial- pieces in the furnace, I arranged them without consideration, so that if the materials had been the best in the world, and the fire also the fittest, it was impossible for any good result to follow. Thus, having blundered several times at a great expense, and through much labor, I was every day pounding and grinding new materials, and constructing new furnaces, which cost much money, and consumed my wood and my time.

“When I had fooled away several years thus imprudently with sorrow and sighs be-cause I could not at all arrive at my intention, and, remembering the money spent, I resolved, in order to avoid such large expenditure, to send the chemicals that I would test to the kiln of some potter ; and, having settled this within my mind, I purchased afresh several earthen vessels, and, having broken them in pieces, as was my custom, I covered three or four hundred of the fragments with enamel, and sent them to a pottery distant a league and a half from my dwelling, with a request to the potters that they would please to permit those trials to be baked within some of their vessels.

This they did willingly ; but when they had baked their batch, and came to take out my trial-pieces, I received nothing but shame and loss, because they turned out good for nothing ; for the fire used by those potters was not hot enough, and my trials were not put into the furnace in the required manner, and according to my science. And because I had at that time no knowledge of the reason why my experiments had not succeeded, I threw the blame (as I before said) on my materials ; and, beginning afresh, I made a number of new compounds and sent them to the same potters, to do with as before ; so I continued to do several times, always with great loss of time, confusion, and sorroW.

” Seeing that I had been able to do nothing, whether in my own furnaces or in those of the before -mentioned potters, I broke about three dozen earthen pots, — all of them new, and having ground a large quantity of different materials, I covered all the bits of the said pots with my chemicals, laid on with a brush ; but you should under-stand that, in two or three hundred of those pieces, there were only three covered with each kind of compound. Having done this, I took all these pieces and carried them to a glass-house, in order to see whether my chemicals and compounds might not prove good when tried in a glass furnace. Then, since these furnaces are much hotter than those of potters, the next day, when I had them drawn out, I observed that some of my compounds had begun to melt ; and for this cause I was still more encouraged to search for the white enamel upon which I had spent so much labor.

“Concerning other colors I did not give myself any trouble ; this little symptom, which I then perceived, caused me to work for the discovery of the said white enamel for two years beyond the time already mentioned, during which two years I did nothing but go and come between my house and adjacent glass-houses, aiming to succeed in my intentions. God willed that when I had begun to lose my courage, and was gone for the last time to a glass-furnace, having a man with me carrying more than three hundred kinds of trial-pieces, there was one among those pieces which was melted within four hours after it had been placed in the furnace, which trial turned out white and polished in a way that caused me such joy as made me think I was become a new creature ; and I thought that from that time I had the full perfection of the white enamel ; but I was very far from having what I thought. This trial was a very happy one in one sense, but very unhappy in another happy, because it gave me entrance upon the ground which I have since gained ; but unhappy, because it was not made with substances in the right measure or proportion. I was so great an ass in those days, that directly I had made the said enamel, which was singularly beautiful, I set myself to make vessels of earth, although I had never understood earths ; and having employed the space of seven or eight months in making the said vessels, I began to erect for myself a furnace like that of the glass-workers, which I built with more labor than I can tell ; for it was requisite that I should be the mason to myself, that I should temper my own mortar, that I should draw the water with which it was tempered ; also it was requisite that I should go myself to seek the bricks and carry them upon my back, because I had no means to pay a single man for aid in this affair. I succeeded with my pots in the first baking, but when it came to the second baking, I endured suffering and labor such as no man would believe. For instead of reposing after my past toil, I was obliged to work for the space. of more than a month, night and day, to grind the materials of which I had made that beautiful enamel at the glass-furnace; and when I had ground them, I covered therewith the vessels that I had made ; this done, I put the fire into my furnace by two mouths, as I had seen done at the glass-houses; I also put my vessels into the furnace, to bake and melt the enamel which I had spread over them but it was an unhappy thing for me, for though I spent six days and six nights before the said furnace, feeding it with wood incessantly through its two mouths, it was not possible to make the said enamel melt, and I was like a man in desperation. And although quite stupefied with labor, I counselled to myself, that in my enamel there might be too little of the substance which should make the others melt ; and, seeing this, I began once more to pound and grind the before-named materials, all the time without letting my furnace cool. In this way I had double labor to pound, grind, and maintain the fire. When I had thus compounded my enamel, I was forced to. go again and purchase pots, in order to prove the said compound—seeing that I had lost all the vessels which I had made myself. And having covered the new pieces with the said enamel, I put them into the furnace, keeping the fire still at its height ; but there-upon occurred to me a new misfortune, which caused great mortification — namely, that the wood having failed me, I was forced to burn the palings which maintained the boundaries of my garden ; which being burnt also, I was forced to burn the tables and the flooring of my house, to cause the melting of the second composition. I suffered an anguish that I cannot speak, for I was quite exhausted and dried up by the heat of the furnace it was more than a month since my shirt had been dry upon me. Further to console me, I was the object of mockery ; and even those from whom solace was due ran crying through the town that I was burning my floors ! And in this way my credit was taken from me, and I was regarded as a madman.

” Others said that I was laboring to make false money, which was a scandal under which I pined away, and slipped with bowed head through the streets like a man put to shame ; I was in debt in several places, and had two children at nurse, unable to pay the nurses ; no one gave me consolation, but, on the contrary, men jested at me, saying it was right for him to die of hunger, seeing that he had left off following his trade. All these things assailed my ears when I passed through the street ; but for all that there still remained some hope which encouraged and sustained me, inasmuch as the last trials had turned out tolerably well. . . . Other faults and accidents occurred; as, when I had made a batch, it might prove to be too much baked, or another time too little, and all would be lost in that way. I was so inexperienced, that I could not discern the too much, or too little. One time my work was baked in front, but not baked properly behind ; an-other time I tried to obviate that, and burnt my work behind, but the front was not baked at all ; sometimes it was baked on the right hand and burnt on the left ; sometimes my enamels were put on too thinly, sometimes they were too thick, which caused me great losses ; sometimes, when I had in the furnace enamels different in color, some were burnt before the others had been melted. In short, I blundered for the space of fifteen or sixteen years. When I had learnt to guard against one danger, there came another, about which I had not thought. During this time I made several furnaces which caused me great losses before I understood the way to heat them equally. At last I found means to make several vessels of different enamels intermixed in the manner of jasper. That fed me for several years ; but, while feeding upon these things, I sought always to work onward with expenses and disbursements — as you know that I am doing still. When I had discovered how to make my rustic pieces, I was in greater trouble and vexation than before ; for having made a certain number of rustic vases and having put them to bake, my enamels turned out some beautiful and well melted, others ill melted ; others were burnt, because they were composed of different materials, because they were fusible in different degrees —the green of the lizards was burnt before the color of the serpents were melted, and the color of the serpents, lobsters, tortoises, and crabs was melted before the white had attained any beauty. All these defects caused me such labor and heaviness of spirit, that before I could render my enamels fusible at the same degree of heat, I thought that I would be at the door of my sepulchre ; also, while laboring at such affairs, I was, for the space of ten years, so wasted in my person, that there was no form nor prominence of muscle on my arms and legs ; also the said legs were throughout of one size, so that the garters with which I tied my stockings, were at once, when I walked, down upon my heels, the stockings too. I often walked about the fields of Xaintes, considering my miseries and weariness, and above all things that in my own house I could have no peace or do anything that was considered good. I was despised and mocked by all ; nevertheless, I made some vessels of different colors which kept house tolerably, but, in doing this, the diversities of earth, which I thought to forward myself, brought me more loss in a little time than all the accidents before. For having made several vessels of different earths, some were burnt before the others were baked; some received the enamel, and proved afterward extremely suited to my purpose ; others deceived me in all my enterprises. Then, because my enamels did not work well together on the same thing, I was deceived many times ; whence I derived always vexation and sorrow. Nevertheless, the hope that I have caused me to proceed with my work so like a man, that often, to amuse people who came to see me, I did my best to laugh, although within me all was very sad.”

The picture of Palissy which we give was painted by Jean Hegesippe Vetter. Vetter, who is a Parisian, born in 182o, was instructed in art by Steuben, and his first picture appeared at the Salon in 1842. He has been honored by having at least two of his paintings, ” Moliere and Louis XIV.,” and ” Mazarin,” purchased by the state. “Palissy ” was painted in 1861, made a great success, and was sold for twenty-five thousand francs.