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History of Limousin enamel

  The Middle Ages

The enamel production during the Middle Ages in Limousin was underlined by the Champlevé technique and was known as the Work of Limoges (opus lemovicense). Emerging in the 12th century, it had great success in all western Christendom before disappearing during the 14th century.


  Tradition of silverware in Limousin.

Saint Eloi, the famous statesman of the 7th century, is seen as the father of Limousin silverware. However, if gold mines were already operated in the region from Antiquity, no silverware activity had been attested before 1000 AD.

  When did the enamel craft appeared in Limousin?

The first enamels appeared in Limousin around 1130-1140 and the production grew in the second half of the 12th century. The expression Work of Limoges was coined just before 1170 and spread then throughout Europe. It ensured the great success of Limousin workshops during that period.

This rise extended throughout the whole 13th century but soon, workshops had to rationalize and standardize their production to cope with an increasing demand. As a consequence, the quality of these objects was altered. By the end of the century, decline started and the leading production was primarily weakened during the Hundred Years War in the 14th century.

  Features of Limousin enamels

A mainly religious production

Most products were liturgical objects and numerous examples can still be found in churches.

Among the most common objects:

  • Shrines, small chests made for Saints' relics whose shapes refer to a sarcophagus or a church ;
  • The pyxides, small boxes for consecrated hosts ;
  • Procession or altar crosses ;
  • Croziers, long sticks with a spiralling top, symbol of the bishops and abbots' power ;  
  • Gémellions, double washbowls priests performed their ablutions with ;
  • And also bookplates, censers, Holy Oil boxes, Eucharistic doves...     

Non religious objects

Few non religious objects had been preserved such as jewellery, dresses, equestrian elements and more. The museum preserves for example two belt buckles but only a tiny part of this production remains today.


  Why Limoges?

There is not a single reason for the emergence and development of Limousin enamel production in the Middle Ages. This phenomenon can be explained by several factors: natural, historical, cultural and economic. 

Favourable natural conditions

Most of the raw components are present in the local environment: silica for glass, metal oxides for colours, acid water for powder purification and wood for ovens. Only copper cannot be found in the Limousin soil.

Limoges: a creative centre in the 12th century

The powerful Saint-Martial Abbey had been for a long time a very productive centre for artistic creation in music and book illumination. However, it seems that enamel workshops did not depend from the monastery.

Limoges: stopping place on the road to Santiago de Compostela

Since Antiquity, Limoges has been located in the crossroads of several routes. In the Middle Ages, the road to Santiago became one of these. Thanks to this location, the city - and especially the Saint-Martial Abbey, built on the grave of the city's evangelist  - welcomed pilgrims who fostered commercial prosperity and urban development.

Limoges benefited from the Church and the Princes' support

  • The enamels workshops were sponsored by the Limoges Saint-Martial Abbey and Grandmont Abbey (located 30 km north of the city). These patrons may have helped in spreading objects and supplying the area with copper.
  • The British House of Plantagenet was located in the region and also contributed to expand the Limousin enamel's market: Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II Plantagenet, duke of Normandy and king of England in 1154. Through this new alliance, she brought South-West of France to the English Crown as a dowry. However, she remained linked to Limousin throughout her lifetime, and especially to Limoges where she had her son Richard the Lion-Heart. 
  •  In 1215, at the Latran council, pope Innocent III officially allowed Limoges workshops to provide churches with liturgical furniture: he required all churches should own two Eucharistic containers of which at least one had to be enamelled.

Limousin enamels have a true aesthetic quality

The Work of Limoges' success was also due to its aesthetic value. Some of enamelled objects are viewed as remarkable masterpieces of the Middle Ages Art.

A cheap production

This production was often made up of strong, easily transportable and above all cheap objects compared with silverware pieces, thanks to the use of common raw materials such as copper and glass.


  The First Renaissance (1480-1530)

After Champlevé enamels disappeared in the 14th century, enamel came back at the end of the 15th century with a new technique. 

This process called "painted enamel" was developed in parallel with the evolution of painting. 

By the end of the 15th century, Limoges was the most important production centre for painted enamels.


  Worship objects

Until the 1530's, enamels were in the form of plaques, set in triptychs, altarpieces or kisses of peace. These were very often private worship objects. 

  Religious themes

The First Renaissance enamels were decorated with religious scenes, usually inspired by the New Testament. Their models were Rhenish, German, Parisian or Flemish engravings.

  Anonymous artists

They are very little known because, except Nardon Péricaud, the most of them didn't sign their work. They were often designated by Art Historians with names or expressions related with their work and characteristics: the "Master of the Large Foreheads" or "Master of the Mesnil-sous-Jumèges altarpiece".

The enameller's craft was still associated with the silversmiths' one.


Technically speaking, the laying of enamel is based on the following principle: colours were laid on a white background, itself based on a black undercoat. The drawing is carved out with a needle into the white layer and appears through the colour.

Only flesh was modelled and some gold hints highlighted decorative details. Silver foil was also used as small hints imitating gems but could sometimes cover a large surface.


  The French Renaissance (from 1530)

By the 16th century, the enamel market was well established outside the boundaries of Limousin. The use of painted enamel got even more diverse to win new customers belonging to the highest social backgrounds thanks to Léonard Limosin. This artist was introduced to the French Court by Jean de Langeac, Bishop of Limoges from 1532 to 1541 and art lover.

  A new status for artists

The practice of enamelling underwent an important transformation: enamellers joined the world of painters. From then on, they started to sign their works, often with a monogram. Dynasties of enamellers appeared such as the Limosins, Pénicauds, Reymonds or the Court-Courtneys, and were very successful until the end of the 16th century.

  New kinds of objects

Enamellers adapted their works to the society's tastes. They created new shapes for objects which consisted in decorative tableware pieces aiming to embellish the sideboards of wealthy patrons. Enamelled plaques were also made and used in the panelling of cabinets. The King and French Court became enamellers' premium customers.

Their works were no longer used as individual worship objects and became an important element of Renaissance luxurious decoration.

  New themes

Until the 1530's, Limousin enamels mainly represented religious scenes. After that date, iconographic references changed and most of the production represented non religious and mythological scenes.

This new trend affected all forms of art and was a feature of the French Renaissance times which rediscovered Antiquity and brought it back to life. Artists integrated Greco-Roman themes in their works as they were fascinated by ancient monuments and "classical" aesthetics showing Man as the measure of all things. Enamellers flowed together with the same feeling to satisfy their customers and their own inspiration.


  Engraving: source of inspiration

Enamellers found inspiration in contemporary engravings. Very few of them invented their own work: they rather transferred and adapted an engraved model into an enamelled one. In this context, Léonard Limosin was a singular artist because he created his own images. The adoption of this new influence also applied on decorative style and patterns: it allowed Limoges enamellers to get to know Italian Mannerism.


The grisaille technique appeared, another form of painted enamelled imitating the visual effects of engravings. This process would soon become the trademark of Limousin enamels.

The paillon, abandoned around 1525, were coming back into fashion at the end of the century.


The 17th  and 18th  centuries

Most of the 17th and 18th centuries' production was led by two families: The Laudins and the Nouaillers.

Their works seemed mainly directed to local customers, sometimes recognized thanks to their corresponding coat of arms.

  Different types of objects

Enamellers production mainly consisted in small plaques which did not kept their original setting. A new object was created: the Holly font. 

The religious furniture had almost totally disappeared : there were only cups, beakers, purses and tobacco grinders but they rarely reached the refinement of Renaissance enamels.


In this period, enamels usually represented a character on a landscape or plain, dark colour background. Usually, it dealt with a Saint accompanied by his attribute.

It was primarily a religious and often a militant iconography because it was related to the Counter-Reformation programme: the Catholic Dogma faced with the Protestant Reformation expressed its feeling through Eucharistic images, penitence and devotion of the Virgin, Martyrs and holy saints of the Counter Reformation such as Saint Charles Borromée even though Limousin saints were subject to special devotion.


In the 17th century, the surrounding decoration often consisted in flowerets drawn with gold, punctuated with a small geometric piece of silver foil, used with opaque enamel hints.

By the end of the century, the border of the plaque around the scene was often embellished with foliated scrolls in white enamel.


The Grisaille technique, French term meaning "in grey" was still used by Jacques I Laudin (v.1627-1695) and Pierre II Nouailher (v.1657-1717) and then disappeared. Polychrome enamel was progressively replaced by glazed opaque and dull colours led by brush.

  The end of production

By the end of the 18th century, the last enamellers disappeared while deposits of kaolin were discovered in Saint Yrieix la Perche.  This discovery offered new perspectives for artists in the porcelain field.


The 19th century

After an absence of several years, enamel reappeared in the 19th century as a result of a renewed taste for ancient art. The first steps of historical research and antique market fostered new vocations such as restorers and forgers.

The 19th century's enamels and their technical finish were a result of Renaissance enamel's imitation, especially of the "grisaille" technique. However, artists would soon give up old techniques to explore new ways and methods of using material. 

By the end of the century, enamel became part of the new interest for Decorative Arts. In 1889, hundreds of enamels were presented at the Paris World Fair.

  The enamel techniques' discovery

It is difficlut to clearly identify the key role of Limoges and Sèvres (near Paris) in the rediscovery of enamel techniques. The two cities seemed to have quickly interacted with each other.

René Ernest Ruben (1808-1900), a famous Limousin goldsmith, is considered of having brought enamel back to life at the end of the 1830's. In 1858, he took part in the local fair with Champlevé and painted enamels where he was awarded the bronze medal. Nevertheless, the research carried out by this lonely man was not comparable to the Sèvres Manufacture, which was officially sponsored  throughout the Second Empire.

Limoges enamellers

In Limoges, individual initiatives went on with several famous people like Louis Dalpayrat (1838-1901), Ernest Blancher (1855-1935) and Louis Bourdery (1852-1901).

Bourdey, with his own artistic production, carried out the first major studies about Renaissance enamellers in collaboration with Emile Lachenaud (1835-1923).


The repertoire of these artists who initiated the Limousin revival shifted between the urban, historical or private portrait and a very academic religious or mythological composition.

They particularly enjoyed using the silver foil which produced shimmering effects.

The first half of the 20th century

The early 20th century's enamel paid particular attention to the great contemporary artistic movements.

Adventurous enamellers were attracted by the charming Art Nouveau before they explored and controlled principles of Art Deco. Their production definitely put enamel in the field of Decorative Arts . Other artists saw it as another form of painting and adapted on their own works contemporary pictorial revolutions such as Impressionism, Pointillism, Fauvism or Cubism.

This was also a period of commercial production, with a very academic workmanship, bought by local customers to celebrate important life events.

  A new direction

Paul Bonnaud (1873-1953) was the first one who moved away from his predecessors' view to embody the Art Nouveau's values: predominance of drawing and curves as well as more or less stylised plants patterns. The material itself became essential and vases were decorated with its effects.

Jules Sarlandie (1874-1936) produced with the same ability shaped objects, plaques and naturalist compositions. From the end of the 20th century, he collaborated with decorators whose models were adapted in enamel.

  The "Art Deco" enamel

The success of Limoges enamel was renewed thanks to the Art Deco movement, which was joined by a lot of enamellers since the famous 1925 Paris exhibition. The vases, cups, boxes and other jewels they produced were displayed in the most prestigious artistic shows  and enjoyed great success.

This new impetus for this artistic production was emphasized by a new technical way of laying enamel , searching new texture and relief effects.

Gorgeous vases with generous curves and decorated with monochrome roses, spiralling flowers or geometric patterns were created by  the Camille Fauré (1872-1955), Andrée Fauré-Malabre and Alexandre Marty (1876-1943) workshops soon joined by Henriette Marty (1902-1996).

The local market was widely supplied by this production which was quickly exported. It was such a great success, by the end of the 1980's the Fauré workshop kept on producing Art Deco enamels on the same models than 50 years ago.

  The impact of artistic enamel's revolutions

The self-made enameller, Léon Jouhaud (1874-1950) gave in a reduced copy his own perception of Post-Impressionnist movement, Pointillism, Cubism or Vuillard's work. His small plaques are among the most appreciated and sought-after pieces of Limousin enamels produced during the inter-war period. 


Since 1945

During the 20th century, enamel developed in a sustainable manner. But in 1937, the Limoges enamellers had to found the Limousin Enamellers Union in order to counter people who made fake Limousin enamels of labelled their work with the name of Limoges. This union wrote a charter guaranteeing certified techniques, materials, handmade work, origin and know-how.

Production of Limousin workshops met a very concrete economic need. These objects were very sought-after by a particular kind of customers, because of their fine workmanship. But their creative value was limited and in total contrast with creations resulting from an artistic statement highlighting the authors' sensibility to the aesthetic issues of their time.

  The post-war production

The younger generation, who studied in the Limoges National School of Decorative Arts in the 40's, tackled enamel in this way: they considered enamel as a way to convey personal feelings rather than an end in itself.

This period is characterised by independent artists. Some of them belonged to well identified spheres: Music for Jean-Marie Euzet (1905-1980) and his wife Juliette (1902-1987), Expressionist for Noël Nivard (1907-1995) and Yvonne Pingen (1914-2003)... 

The Limousin enamellers had experience in all enamel's possibilities, created bigger pieces and played with the effects of over-firings or bare copper. Following their admiration for ancient enamels, some of them renewed Champlevé technique and manufacturing process of their famous predecessors.

  The international Biennial Festival of Enamel (1971-1994)

The first international Biennial Festival of Enamel was organized in Limoges in 1971, upon the artist Geores Magadoux's initiative.

In 1982, Gérard Malabre, Camille Fauré's grandson, succeeded him. At the same time, he launched international discussion days on enamelling and invited foreign enamellers to participate in selection committees.

When Michel Kiener became the leader of the organisation, the Biennale festival opened up to other "Fire Arts crafts" (porcelain, glass, copperware). It initiated other exhibitions devoted to heritage enamels and managed to interest well know designers in this technique. During 20 years, Biennial Festivals were able to change the perception of enamel and stimulated the contemporary Limousin creation. 

 Contemporary Limousin enamels 

As did their elders, modern enamellers consider enamel as a material highlighting their artistic feelings. The great variety of enamel's textures, its combination with other materials (allowing the creation of sculptures), the influence of foreign cultures or literature are all key ideas to understand the contemporary enamelled creations in Limoges.  

Today's enamellers' challenge consists in finding a common way to keep this historical craft alive while letting everyone free to interpret the material according to his or her inspiration. Limousin enamellers, members of the APPEL association opened the "Maison de l'email" in 2007 which gave them the opportunity to promote and develop enamel. 




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