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A Look at French Ceramics, Past and Present

Think you know French ceramics? Many people picture porcelain when they think about French ceramics, such as the famous Sèvres porcelain. Louis XV became the owner of this producer in 1759 and it was a major maker of French porcelain throughout the eighteenth century (according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Most of these early porcelains were imitations of pieces from Japan and China that only the very rich could afford, though there was plenty of French innovation once the new processes got traction. Because of a lack of essential materials to make a clay body that was the same as the Asian pieces, all of the French ceramics made before 1770 were soft paste porcelain, not hard paste. (For those that are wondering, soft paste porcelain requires a higher fire temperature and is much harder to form than the more plastic and malleable hard paste porcelain, which contains minerals like kaolin and quartz.)

Technical talk aside, these old French ceramics are certainly beautiful to see. If you’re in the LA area, an upcoming exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art will feature examples of porcelain from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France that have a whole range of style and function. What’s particularly interesting about this collection is that it also features faience, which is simply another name for tin-oxide glazed pottery… also known as majolica.

Flash forward to today where faience/majolica is still going strong in French ceramics. Sturdy, rustic, yet also refined, this ceramic tradition continues to grow with modern sensibilities while staying true to its roots.

Just look at the curves of the pitchers by Richard Esteban and Poterie Ravel. Simple and elegant, their rich glazes are enticing for hands and eyes alike. Compare a faience ewer circa 1700 (like the photo above) to Richard’s barn red milk pitcher – they have the same clean lines and visual appeal with tall, stately spouts.

Poterie Ravel’s fancy pitcher, stunning in mustard yellow or creamy ivory, also reflects shapes and function from the past that fits in with today’s aesthetics for French ceramics.

Then there are French ceramics like those by Patrice Voelkel and Sylvie Durez. Patrice does so much with colors like white or blue, creating pieces that are deceptively simple. His large serving dish has a delicate rim that exposes the black local clay of Provence, while the white irregular glaze gives it real character. Sylvie goes a completely different direction, treating her bowls, serving platters, and pitchers as canvases for playful animals, dreamy women, or pastel landscapes with a surreal feel.

No matter your style, the variety of French ceramics being made today are sure to be just as sought after in hundreds of years as those that were made in the 1700s. So which French ceramics suit you best?

French faience ewer image courtesy of Sean Pathasema/Birmingham Museum of Art.