In the Louvre in Paris, preserved among almost priceless gems, are
several pieces of exquisite pottery called Palissy ware. Thousands
examine them every year, yet but few know the struggles of the man who
made such beautiful works of art.
Born in the south of France in 1509, in a poor, plain home, Bernard
Palissy grew to boyhood, sunny-hearted and hopeful, learning the trade
of painting on glass from his father. He had an ardent love for nature,
and sketched rocks, birds, and flowers with his boyish hands. When he
was eighteen, he grew eager to see the world, and, with a tearful
good-by from his mother, started out to seek his fortune. For ten years
he travelled from town to town, now painting on glass for some rich
lord, and now sketching for a peasant family in return for food.
Meantime he made notes about vegetation, and the forming of crystals in
the mountains of Auvergne, showing that he was an uncommon boy.
Finally, like other young people, he fell in love, and was married at
twenty-eight. He could not travel about the country now, so he settled
in the little town of Saintes. Then a baby came into their humble home.
How could he earn more money, since the poor people about him had no
need for painted glass? Every time he tried to plan some new way to grow
richer, his daily needs weighed like a millstone around his neck.
About this time he was shown an elegant enamelled cup from Italy. "What
if I could be the first and only maker of such ware in France?" thought
he. But he had no knowledge of clay, and no money to visit Italy, where
alone the secret could be obtained.
The Italians began making such pottery about the year 1300. Two
centuries earlier, the Pagan King of Majorca, in the Mediterranean Sea,
was said to keep confined in his dungeons twenty thousand Christians.
The Archbishop of Pisa incited his subjects to make war upon such an
infidel king, and after a year's struggle, the Pisans took the island,
killed the ruler, and brought home his heir, and great booty. Among the
spoils were exquisite Moorish plates, which were so greatly admired that
they were hung on the walls of Italian churches. At length the people
learned to imitate this Majolica ware, which brought very high prices.
The more Palissy thought about this beautiful pottery, the more
determined he became to attempt its making. But he was like a man
groping in the dark. He had no knowledge of what composed the enamel on
the ware; but he purchased some drugs, and ground them to powder. Then
he bought earthen pots, broke them in pieces, spread the powder upon the
fragments, and put them in a furnace to bake. He could ill afford to
build a furnace, or even to buy the earthenware; but he comforted his
young wife with the thought that as soon as he had discovered what would
produce white enamel they would become rich.
When the pots had been heated sufficiently, as he supposed, he took them
out, but, lo! the experiment had availed nothing. Either he had not hit
upon the right ingredients, or the baking had been too long or too short
in time. He must of course try again. For days and weeks he pounded and
ground new materials; but no success came. The weeks grew into months.
Finally his supply of wood became exhausted, and the wife was losing her
patience with these whims of an inventor. They were poor, and needed
present income rather than future prospects. She had ceased to believe
Palissy's stories of riches coming from white enamel. Had she known that
she was marrying an inventor, she might well have hesitated, lest she
starve in the days of experimenting; but now it was too late.
His wood used up, Palissy was obliged to make arrangements with a potter
who lived three miles away, to burn the broken pieces in his furnace.
His enthusiasm made others hopeful; so that the promise to pay when
white enamel was discovered was readily accepted. To make matters sure
of success at this trial, he sent between three and four hundred pieces
of earthenware to his neighbor's furnace. Some of these would surely
come back with the powder upon them melted, and the surface would be
white. Both himself and wife waited anxiously for the return of the
ware; she much less hopeful than he, however. When it came, he says in
his journal, "I received nothing but shame and loss, because it turned
out good for nothing."
Two years went by in this almost hopeless work, then a third,--three
whole years of borrowing money, wood, and chemicals; three years of
consuming hope and desperate poverty. Palissy's family had suffered
extremely. One child had died, probably from destitution. The poor wife
was discouraged, and at last angered at his foolishness. Finally the
pottery fever seemed to abate, and Palissy went back to his drudgery of
glass-painting and occasional surveying. Nobody knew the struggle it had
cost to give up the great discovery; but it must be done.
Henry II., who was then King of France, had placed a new tax on salt,
and Palissy was appointed to make maps of all the salt-marshes of the
surrounding country. Some degree of comfort now came back to his family.
New clothes were purchased for the children, and the overworked wife
repented of her lack of patience. When the surveying was completed, a
little money had been saved, but, alas! the pottery fever had returned.
Three dozen new earthen pots were bought, chemicals spread over them as
before, and these taken to a glass-furnace, where the heat would be much
greater. He again waited anxiously, and when they were returned, some of
the powder had actually melted, and run over the earthenware. This added
fuel to the flame of his hope and ambition. And now, for two whole years
more, he went between his house and the glass-furnace, always hoping,
His home had now become like a pauper's. For five years he had chased
this will-o'-the-wisp of white enamel; and the only result was the
sorrow of his relatives and the scorn of his neighbors. Finally he
promised his heart-broken wife that he would make but one more trial,
and if this failed, he would give up experimenting, and support her and
the children. He resolved that this should be an almost superhuman
effort. In some unknown way he raised the money for new pots and three
hundred mixtures of chemicals. Then, with the feelings of a man who has
but one chance for life, he walked beside the person who carried his
precious stock to the furnace. He sat down before the mouth of the great
hot oven, and waited four long hours. With what a sinking heart he
watched the pieces as they were taken out! He hardly dared look, because
it would probably be the old story of failure. But, lo! some were
melted, and as they hardened, oh, joy unspeakable, they turned white!
He hastened home with unsteady step, like one intoxicated, to tell his
wife the overwhelming truth. Surely he could not stop now in this great
work; and all must be done in secret, lest other potters learn the art.
Fears, no doubt, mingled with the new-born hopes of Mrs. Palissy, for
there was no regular work before her husband, and no steady income for
hungry little mouths. Besides, he must needs build a furnace in the shed
adjoining their home. But how could he obtain the money? Going to the
brick yard, he pledged some of the funds he hoped to receive in the
future, and brought home the bricks upon his back. Then he spent seven
long months experimenting in clay vessels, that he might get the best
shapes and quality to take the enamel. For another month, from early
morning till late at night, he pounded his preparations of tin, lead,
iron, and copper, and mixed them, as he hoped, in proper proportions.
When his furnace was ready, he put in his clay pots, and seated himself
before the mouth.
All day and all night, he fed the fire, his little children bringing him
soup, which was all the food the house afforded. A second day and night
he watched the results eagerly; but the enamel did not melt. Covered
with perspiration, and faint from loss of sleep and food, with the
desperation of hope that is akin to despair, for six days and six
nights, catching scarcely a moment of sleep, he watched the earthen
pots; but still the enamel did not melt. At last, thinking that his
proportions in his mixtures might have been wrong, he began once more to
pound and grind the materials without letting his furnace cool. His clay
vessels which he had spent seven months in making were also useless, so
he hastened to the shops, and bought new ones.
The family were now nearly frantic with poverty and the pottery madness
of the father. To make matters quite unbearable, the wood had given out,
and the furnace-fires must not stop. Almost wild with hope deferred, and
the necessities of life pressing upon him, Palissy tore up the fence
about his garden, and thrust it into the furnace-mouth. Still the enamel
did not melt. He rushed into the house, and began breaking up the table
and chairs for fuel. His wife and children were horrified. They ran
through the streets, crying out that Palissy was tearing the house down,
and had become crazy. The neighbors gathered, and begged him to desist,
but all to no purpose. He tore up the floors of the house, and threw
them in. The town jeered at him, and said, "It is right that he die of
hunger, seeing that he has left off following his trade." He was
exhausted and dried up by the heat of the furnace; but still he could
not yield. Finally the enamel melted. But now he was more crazy than
before. He must go forward, come what might.
With his family nearer than ever to starvation, he hired an assistant
potter, promising the old promise,--to pay when the discovery had been
perfected. The town of Saintes must have become familiar with that
promise. An innkeeper boarded the potter for six months, and charged it
to Palissy, to be paid, like all the other bills, in the future.
Probably Mrs. Palissy did not wish to board the assistant, even had she
possessed the necessary food. At the end of the six months the potter
departed, receiving, as pay, nearly all Palissy's wearing-apparel, which
probably was scarcely worth carrying away.
He now felt obliged to build an improved furnace, tearing down the old
one to recover the bricks, nearly turned to stone by the intense heat.
His hands were fearfully bruised and cut in the work. He begged and
borrowed more money, and once more started his furnace, with the boast
that this time he would draw three or four hundred francs from it. When
the ware was drawn out, the creditors came, eager for their share; but,
alas! there was no share for them. The mortar had been full of flints,
which adhered to the vessels; and Palissy broke the spoiled lot in
pieces. The neighbors called him a fool; the wife joined in the
maledictions--and who could blame her?
Under all this disappointment his spirit gave way, and he fled to his
chamber, and threw himself upon the bed. Six of his children had died
from want during the last ten years of struggle. What agony for the fond
mother! "I was so wasted in person," he quaintly wrote afterwards,
"that there was no form nor prominence of muscle on my arms or 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, with the stockings too. I was despised and mocked by all."
But the long lane turned at last. He stopped for a year, and took up his
old work to support his dying family, and then perfected his discovery.
For five or six years there were many failures,--the furnaces were too
hot, or the proportions were wrong; but finally the work became very
beautiful. His designs from nature were perfect, and his coloring
marvellous. His fame soon spread abroad; and such nobles as Montmorenci,
who stood next in rank to the King, and counts and barons, were his
patrons. He designed tiles for the finest palaces, ideal heads of the
Saviour, and dainty forms from Greek mythology.
Invited by Catherine de Medicis, wife of King Henry II., Palissy removed
to Paris, and was thenceforward called "Bernard of the Tuileries." He
was now rich and famous. What a change from that day when his
half-starved wife and children fled along the streets of Saintes, their
furniture broken up for furnace-fires! And yet, but for this blind
devotion to a single object, he would have remained a poor, unknown
glass-painter all his life. While in Paris, he published two or three
books which showed wide knowledge of history, mines, springs, metals,
and philosophy. He founded a Museum of Natural History, and for eight
years gave courses of lectures, attended by all the learned men of the
day. When his great learning was commented upon, he replied, "I have had
no other book than the sky and the earth, known to all." A wonderful man
All his life Palissy was a devoted Huguenot, not fearing to read his
Bible, and preach to the people daily from it. Once he was imprisoned at
Bordeaux, and but for his genius, and his necessity to the beautifying
of palaces and chapels, he would have been put to death. When he was
seventy-six, under the brutal Henry III., he was shut up in the
Bastille. After nearly four years, the curled and vain monarch visited
him, and said, "My good man, you have been forty-five years in the
service of the Queen my mother, or in mine, and we have suffered you to
live in your own religion, amidst all the executions and the massacres.
Now, however, I am so pressed by the Guise party and my people, that I
have been compelled, in spite of myself, to imprison these two poor
women and you; they are to be burnt to-morrow, and you also, if you will
not be converted."
"Sire," answered the old man, "you have said several times that you feel
pity for me; but it is I who pity you, who have said, 'I am compelled.'
That is not speaking like a King. These girls and I, who have part in
the kingdom of heaven, we will teach you to talk royally. The Guisarts,
all your people, and yourself, cannot compel a potter to bow down to
images of clay."
The two girls were burnt a few months afterward. The next year, 1589,
Henry III. was stabbed by a monk who knelt before his throne; and the
same year, Palissy died in the Bastille, at the age of eighty.