On the Museum’s Lower Level in the Hidden Dimensions gallery, there is a section on Myth, showcasing objects, such as card tables, that portray mythical figures. There are also several dishes mounted on the wall. A charger featuring the erotic seductress Venus is the subject of this blog post.
The dish in question dates to 1681 and is made of tin-glazed earthenware (also called Delftware). It features a reclining female nude with a child standing on her lap and four more children, or putti, playing behind her. The dish’s border depicts arrangements of fruit, cherries, flowers, masks in relief, and the inscription S/ WM/ 1681. Chargers with this scene are called fecundity dishes and were made in London between 1633 and 1697.
Fecundity dishes are said to be derived from the ceramics of French Huguenot potter Bernard Palissy. Palissy lived from about 1510 to about 1589 and is famous for his molded relief dishes and bowls. Aside from the Venus and putti dishes, he crafted ceramic plates, basins and ewers with attached casts of lizards, shellfish and snakes. The earliest known English fecundity plate is dated 1633. It is possible then that either London potters copied Palissy’s work 40 years after he had passed away, or, more likely, they copied a dish made by one of Palissy’s followers.
These dishes were mostly meant for decorative purposes, although one source states that they could also have held rose water for washing one’s hands at the table. The inscriptions on several examples suggest that they were given as marriage gifts, wishing fertility and a life full of children to the happy couple.
Although Palissy passed away over 400 years ago, his influence lives on. In 2003, Virginia artist Michelle Erickson created a piece called Liberty on Leave, and in 2008, a piece called Paradise Lost. Both are commentaries on the Iraq War, and both are inspired by fecundity dishes.
In Paradise Lost, Erickson substitutes the figure of Liberty for the goddess of fertility. She is stripped to the bone, and her children are reduced to wearing gas masks and carrying machine guns. This work was part of a 2010 exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum titled The Body Politic.
On a completely unrelated, but interesting, note, if you are interested in contemporary artists exploring older techniques, I recently spoke to artist Christy Matson (you can read about her work in this blog post). Matson moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, and is in the process of acquiring a Jacquard loom. She will use the loom for her own work, make it available to other artists, and teach students about the Jacquard loom’s history and the process of weaving on it. If you want to learn more about her project, click here.
Claudia Mooney works for Chipstone, the Milwaukee-based foundation dedicated to promoting American decorative arts scholarship. She researches objects and creates relevant programming for Chipstone’s exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum and in the community.