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Théodore Deck

Théodore Deck, born on January 2, 1823 in Guebwiller and died on May 15, 1891 in Paris, is a French ceramist.

Born in Guebwiller, Haut-Rhin, son of Richard Deck, silk dyer, and Marguerite Hach, Joseph Theodore Deck is passionate about chemistry and the physical sciences. Upon leaving primary school, he remained three years at the Collège de La Chapelle-Sous-Rougemont, near Belfort. The death of his father in 1840 forced him to return to his hometown and to take over the family business, helped by his elder brother. This recovery is a failure, both home and business are sold.

According to some biographers, his vocation as a ceramist reveals himself during a trip to Switzerland, while still in college. Fascinated by a painted terracotta statue, he asked, “Who did this? “A potter answered him. In 1841, he entered as apprentice to the master poet Hügelin father, in Strasbourg. In two years, he became acquainted with the methods inherited from the sixteenth century, like the inlaid pastes colored in the manner of Saint-Porchaire. This did not prevent him from spending his free time drawing or shaping the clay in the studio of the sculptor André Friederich.

Escaping military service, he made a tour of Germany as it is tradition in the companions potters-potters Alsatian. His study tour led him to the Grand Duchy of Baden, in Württemberg, Bavaria and Graz (now southern Austria). The quality of his work allows him to obtain important orders in Austria for the castles of the provinces and the imperial palaces, in particular for the palace of Schönbrunn. It continues in Hungary to Pest, Prague, then northwards through Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin and Hamburg.

He came to Paris in December 1847. He was recommended by Hügelin to the stove factory of the Bavarian potter Vogt, located in the Rue de la Roquette. The Revolution of 1848 interrupts production and Deck decides to return to his hometown. His family advised him to set up a small terra cotta workshop, where he made a few busts, statuettes, vases, lamps and copies of famous antiques, some of which can be seen in Guebwiller at the Théodore Deck Museum.

Recognizing that this situation would not allow him to adequately support his needs, he returned to Paris in December 1851, where he was employed by the widow Dumas, daughter of the Vogt factory for whom he had worked. Hired as foreman, he provided the designs and models to the workers, while working the land himself. The factory won a first medal at the Universal Exhibition in 1855.

The following year, he made the decision to establish himself not far from his former employer at 20, rue de la Fontaine-au-Roi, probably using his ovens. His brother, Xavier Deck, just out of military service, joined him.

It was officially in 1858 that the Deck brothers created their company. They settled in Paris at 46, boulevard Saint-Jacques a year later. At first, the brothers realized only coatings of stoves. But the business is progressing so well that barely a year after their installation they wish to diversify their production and launch themselves in the ceramics for the coating of the buildings as well as in the pieces of form. In 1869, they opened a shop selling Rue Halévy in the Parisian district of the Opera, managed by their sister.

Deck is interested in politics. In 1870 he opted for French nationality. Sympathetic of the Radical Party, he was elected deputy mayor in the 15th arrondissement of Paris.

In 1861, Théodore Deck exhibited his work for the first time at the Salon des Arts et Industries de Paris, which was held on the Champs-Élysées. These were pieces with incrustation decoration called “Henri II” and others Pieces covered with a turquoise blue enamel or a decor in the style of the ceramics of Iznik. If he wins a silver medal, criticism is mixed. The following year, on the occasion of the 1862 World Fair in London, he conquered the English clientele. He surprised by presenting as his previous year his vase of the Alhambra of exceptional dimensions (1.36 m in height and 2.25 m in circumference). The vase, made from a photograph and layers raised by Jean Charles Davillier, was purchased by the South Kensington Museum a few years later. At the same exhibition, however, there are numerous cracks in the glaze and poor adhesion to the paste.

At the Exhibition of Industrial Arts in 1864, Deck managed to present pieces covered with transparent enamels that were not cracked. He will explain the manufacture and qualities of these transparent enamels when he published in 1887 his treatise La faïence. One year later, he realized the first trials of reliefs under transparent enamels. He never abandoned this technique, which was, moreover, adopted by many of the great manufacturers. Inspired by the pastiche of Islamic ceramics, Egyptian, Chinese, Japanese or majolica, it evolves characters, birds, flowers, ornaments of all kinds under a turquoise, green, yellow or manganese glaze. It is above all a characteristic blue that the public retains of this technique: a brilliant turquoise shade which it immediately adopts under the name of “Bleu de Deck” or “Bleu Deck”.

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Theodore Deck continues the innovations. On the occasion of the Universal Exhibition of 1867, the factory received a silver medal thanks, among other things, to the metallic reflections it obtained on certain pieces. While these exposures are the driving force behind these technical advances, they are nevertheless costly. Some tests are sometimes aborted, so porcelain tests lasted in the late 1860s.

In the same way as Leon Parvillae or Eugene Collinot, Deck plays the monumental map. On the occasion of the 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna, he presented a spectacular planter two meters wide, leaning against a panel nearly four meters high. The ensemble, preserved in Geneva at the Ariana Museum, was realized on the drawings of Émile-Auguste Reiber.

Théodore Deck was appointed in 1875 to head the improvement commission of the Manufacture de Sèvres.

As soon as they were installed, the Deck brothers gathered their artists’ friends and set up a principle of collaboration. According to this principle, Deck realizes dishes, tiles or plaques (very rarely vases) that he gives to paint to artists who have already proved themselves at the Salon. Sales gains are divided into two equitable shares.

Deck also trains apprentices who will in turn make school. The most famous of them, Edmond Lachenal, will continue the work of the great ceramist by developing his art in the spirit of Art Nouveau.

He was the author of a masterly treatise on earthenware. In 1887 he became the supreme director of the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres and left his brother Xavier and his nephew Richard to lead the company. He made soft porcelains and improved the technique of manufacture, will succeed in giving them grandiose dimensions, covering them with its glazes celadon and turquoise blue.

It rests since 1891 in Paris in the cemetery Montparnasse. It was his friend Auguste Bartholdi who made his funeral monument on which is engraved the phrase: “He snatched fire from heaven.”

The Deck workshops closed a few years after his death.

An important collection of Deck ceramics is gathered in Guebwiller at the Théodore Deck museum.

Public Collections:
Guebwiller, musée Théodore Deck: busts, statuettes, vases, lamps and copies of antiques
London, South Kensington Museum: Vase of the Alhambra
Geneva, musée Ariana: Monumental planter
Indianapolis Art Museum: Flat (circa 1880), painted by Raphaël Collin
Works of Théodore Deck
Naïade at rest (1871), painted by Joseph Ranvier. Colmar, museum Unterlinden.
Blue Cat, Guebwiller, Theodore Deck Museum.
Great dish (circa 1875), Baltimore, Walters Art Museum.
Coq, Marseille, Museum of Decorative Arts, Earthenware and Fashion.