A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF FRENCH FAIENCE:
Basic Types Found in the Illinois Country
Robert Mazrim 2009

Tin glazed earthenwares made in France are known as “faience”. What was a decorative product for the homes of the wealthy during the 1600s had become part of traditional table settings in more modest kitchens by the mid 1700s.  The French colony in the “Illinois Country” imported a number of faience goods during the 18th century. These were inexpensive, mass-produced wares that were decorated in motifs that were designed to be manufactured quickly and in large numbers. They share little with the faience found in most museum collections.

Two principal forms of faience were available to consumers: faience blanche and faience brune, or white and brown faience. White faience vessels, undecorated or painted, were designed primarily for table service. Plates, platters, pitchers, and drug pots are the most common forms of white faience found in the Midwest. Vessels in brown faience were coated on their exterior surfaces with a brown manganese glaze, and in some cases were composed of a different clay fabric. These were intended to be used over the fire, as well as at the table. Warming platters, bowls, and cooking pots are the most common forms of brown faience found in Illinois.

Broadly speaking, the faience used by residents of French colonies in North America has thus far been divided into four broad, regionally-based stylistic traditions. It is from these stylistic divisions that faience artifacts are categorized. The four regional traditions include Normandy, Moustiers, Nevers, and La Rochelle.

Faience in the “Normandy” tradition consists of designs made popular by potters in and around Rouen. Blue-on-white, Chinese-inspired motifs are the most common. Multi-colored wares are also common, and include “St. Cloud Polychrome” (blue outlined in black or dark blue), and “Seine Polychrome” (usually in blue, red, and orange). Most of the Normandy style faience found in Illinois was probably made in Northern France.

Faience products made in southern France are also found in the Illinois Country. Placed in the “Moustiers” stylistic tradition, most of these vessels were made in and around Provence. Blue-on white patterns in this style are less tied to Chinese inspirations. The region was also responsible for wares painted in a distinctive yellow-orange color, depicting birds or fine floral patterns. 

Found much less frequently in Illinois are wares associated with the “Nevers” tradition of east-central France. This style is less defined by rim borders, and includes whimsical scenes, painted slogans, or a simple scroll-like pattern along rims. Even less common are wares associated with La Rochelle factories in southwestern France. These consist of elaborate, scroll-like rim designs featuring zoned cross-hatching and small stylized floral motifs.

By the last quarter of the 18th century, faience production had decreased significantly, in the face of the international popularity of English creamware and pearlware. Brown faience used in cooking was still exported to North America during the last decades of the 1700s, but by the early 19th century, the only faience products still in use in this country were small ointment pots made in southern France.
Rouenese faience from the site of
the village of Nouvelle Chartres
in Illinois, circa 1720-60
 
Faience brune cooking pot.
St. Cloud Polychrome plate.
Moustiers plate.
La Rochelle plate.
Faience salve pot, circa 1830.
Painted scene on a Nevers plate.