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In this series, Lagniappe presents works from the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art, with commentary from a curator. 

This style of quirky earthenware came from the experimentations of French hydraulics engineer and potter Bernard Palissy. In the mid-1500s, Palissy molded real-life animals and plants from the marshes in western France to create his often-imitated rustic ceramics.

Though they may seem like kitschy decoration now, these ceramics were part of Palissy’s scientific investigation into the natural world.

Like his early understanding of fossil origins, the curiosity behind these radical plates ran afoul of the powerful 16th-century Catholic church. Palissy eventually was imprisoned and died in Paris’ Bastille prison thanks to his scholarly lectures and his Protestant beliefs, which at the time the church saw as a direct threat to divine rule.

Regardless of their rebellious nature, these “Palissy ware” ceramics inspired by the originals adopted the scientist’s name and enjoyed waves of popularity. Three centuries later, many European ceramics factories again embraced the fad for a wild, naturalistic aesthetic.

These 19th-century Palissy-style examples at  made by French and Portuguese makers show lifelike reptiles, shellfish and aquatic plants, with glaze colors that perfectly match the opalescence of an oyster shell, the rich blue-green of moss and the vibrant red-orange of a Dungeness crab.

This collection of “Palissy ware” ceramics is on view at NOMA in the Lupin Foundation Center for Decorative Arts on the museum's second floor.

Laura Ochoa Rincon is Decorative Arts Trust Fellow at the New Orleans Museum of Art.