The ewer is an exceptional example of the 16th century Limoges’ workshops eminence in production of religious and secular objects in the technique of grisaille enamel. At the fastening of the handle, it holds in gold the monogram of Master I.C. (Jean Court) – one of the most skillful Limoges enamel painters of the 16th century, known especially for his grisaille oeuvre. Master I.C.’s works are held in the museum collections of The Louvre, The Frick Collection and The Walters Art Museum, among others.
The splendor items from Limoges, made for the court and noblemen, were often painted in elaborated Mannerist fashion, consisting of highly detailed figurative scenes and richly decorated border areas. More often than daily used for serving meals, they were displayed along other works of art, in public areas of wealthy residencies. The imagery depicted on these objects, as in the case of this particular ewer, was most often drawn from classical mythology via compositions copied from German, French or Italian Mannerist prints.
The grisaille style, with the use of black and white, multiple shades of grey and neutral, muted colors, became introduced in the first half of the 16th century. Its origins might be traced to the black and white prints the design was originally taken from, as well as to the fact that this style was relatively easier to fire. The grisaille was made by firing a coat of very dark enamel, then layering it with coats of white of various thickness and with the design delineated in black, before the next firing. Afterwards, other colors would be added, to boost the composition highlights. In addition, there are parts of this ewer made in the technique of camaïeu, which features transparent enamel as the first layer, instead of the dark one.
In the lower half of the ewer’s body there is a frieze- like bacchanal procession moving from left to right, with all the participants depicted in profile and, in harmony with their movement, lit from behind. The central place in the procession (under the sprout) belongs to the drunken Silenus who is riding a donkey, supported by two satyrs. In front of this dynamic grouping of figures there are several other satyrs, respectively depicted as playing a syrinx, a trumpet and carrying a dish while also holding the ends of Silenus’ robe. Another group of figures consists of an elderly man kneeling in front of the goat, which is ridden by a child presented with a cup held by another child. The frieze of figures is built against a neutral black background contributing to the illusion of depth, with occasional grass on the ground.
The upper part of the ewer delivers a much busier composition – a swirling group of sea monsters (possibly a triumph scene of Thetis or Galatea) and other creatures; two stags, a bull ridden by a masked and horned satyr, an elderly female centaur woman with bat’s wings, a triton and a nereid, a dolphin’s head and a nereid riding a goat, a centaur and a dolphin. The figures are surrounded by undulating lines delivering the impression of whirling waves.
The Ernest Brummer Collection: Auction sale, 16-19 October 1979, Zurich, Galerie Koller & Spink & Son (sale no. 257, cat pages 396-399)
Private American Collection