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Jean-Baptiste Stahl: Branko Stahl reveals the artist and his work in cooperation with Chris Wheeler, Stein Marks UK.



Born in 1869, Jean-Baptiste Stahl demonstrated mastery in his drawings when he was just 25 years old. His Strasbourg sketchbook from 1894 includes designs of vases of utmost elegance and ease. In the same sketchbook we find drawings laden with humour, life and figures. The three-dimensionality of his drawings is eye-catching. Out of his hand, entire scenes live on ceramic items. They are not restrained by the requirements of a fabrication process. They emerge as seed crystals of his visions.

The delicateness and lightness of his drawings imply the running of pure lines, the spatial concept of the sketch, the airiness of his modulations of light and shade. His elaborate pencil drawings reveal something of a painter's perception of light and shape.

An obvious conclusion is apparent: as a young artist, JBS was not in love with hard lines, strong contrast or any kind of strict geometric design. Nevertheless, he liked to place his lively worlds in a frame. This frame could be the ceramic item itself or geometric designs on its surface.

Young and eager to explore his talents, attitude to life, curiosity for the world of design, he met his medium: porcelain. Having grown up in the traditional pottery of his family in Alsace, he had already absorbed the potential as well as limitations of stoneware. Now, he met the challenge to transform the mastery of his drawings into the real world of porcelain. Both imply different concepts related to the perceptions of our eyes. To bring these worlds together, JBS had to work mentally and technically. He had to expand his knowledge about design and styles in regimes such as the arts, architecture and items of everyday life. His auto-didactic drive to learn and to broaden his consciousness can be seen in the only longer text that is passed down from his hand. It is found in a second sketchbook from an undated period. (1) The text deals with the characteristics of Ionian, Doric and Attic pillars, which fit with the historic background of many of his scenes.


As a young spirit, JBS certainly looked for challenge. Though these times lie in the darkness of history, we see that in his Strasbourg sketchbook he made drawings of renowned items, such as the satyr vase by Wedgwood. Maybe it was in this context that he met with the world of Villeroy & Boch. Both were at the right time at the right place. The potential of porcelain must have been inspiring to the young JBS. Porcelain was much closer to what his drawings already showed: delicateness and airiness.

Certainly, JBS started to dig into the knowledge of his predecessors, well aware of his competitors. The second sketchbook shows the name Carrier-Belleuse written at the margin, who worked as an artist at Minton's, a ceramics manufacturer in the UK. (2) Combined with the aim of a company like Villeroy & Boch to compete with traditional porcelain manufacturers like Sevre, Minton's and Wedgwood, JBS got the task he was looking for. Furthermore, he proceeded on a reliable technical basis: Pate-sur-pate and Jasperware. Neither one provided him with the means he needed. In order to reach the visions seen in his drawings, he needed to merge the benefits of both. The Evolution of Phanolith

The starting point of JBS' work in porcelain was cameo-like. From the beginning, we see his excellence in modelling his figures, particularly faces and hair. In great detail and ease, life can be imaged in a relief, JBS' work already exhibits the lively and airy vibrancy that finds its mastery a few years later. The amazing dignity of the female portrait gives a touch of eternity.

Looking at his portrait of Jesus, his aim to reach plasticity, liveliness and subtlety is obvious. At this stage of his technique and knowledge, he still aimed to image the light and shades of a three-dimensional figure by flattening it to the range of heights and depths of a relief. Despite his mastery in modelling his subjects, the spatial character of his work remained limited. Nonetheless, he tried to give the entire design a lighter atmosphere: a white circle of tiny dots on a narrow rim combine with the eternal expression of a human face. The ring appears as a trace of Jesus' thoughts and deeds, ideas of humaneness and spirit. The perfection of the dots resembles the purity of Jesus' appearance. In that, JBS proves his artistic ambitions far beyond the craftsmanship of a modeller of porcelain. If one keeps the small size of the item in mind, one clearly feels the mastery and passion with which JBS realised the finest details of his work.


An item of similar technique and topic is JBS' Madonna. JBS placed the entire scene in a ring of flowers so elaborately modelled that one can easily determine the different species. Despite the traditional stringent central representation of the Madonna, he filled the scene with movement and vitality. Sacred distance and the intimacy of life come together in a small piece of porcelain. The tension between geometric design, religious ideas and the richness of life reminds one of JBS' drawings.

Regarding two seemingly unimportant details of the Madonna item, one is struck by the appearance of the first phanolith effect: The beams of light behind Madonna's head and the area near the flying bird are modelled in translucency. The reason for doing so is obvious. With this small item, we look over his shoulder to see the world of phanolith emerge. Though still in its infancy concerning the processing of the porcelain and its firing, the Madonna by JBS gives us an insight into the evolution of the phanolith. The benefits of the pate-sur-pate technique and of Jasperware join in a first step.

As new ground has been broken, a next item shows the systematics with which JBS now uses the effect of translucency. It is not solely applied to mimic background, but to evoke the impression of shadow and to enforce plasticity. The details of the scene are such that even the breed of the dog can be imagined. Again, the strictness of a classic scene meets with JBS' aptitude, to let the richness, liveliness and intimacy of everyday life come into his work.

From the Small to Real Objects

Regarding the items described, there was still a significant way to go to create a phanolith plaque in all its mastery. One item that is a particular example of this is a tobacco jar that was handed down the family line, similar to all the workshop specimens shown in the previous figures. This first larger object corresponds in style and design to the small Madonna. Only one side and the lid are decorated and the overall design of the tobacco jar is simple. The item was created as a test case, not for sale. Nevertheless, it shows that the technique and processing of the porcelain had developed significantly. The phanolith relief demonstrates clarity and sophistication. The smile of the central figure is so finely modelled that it reminds one of the smile of the Mona Lisa. Still not reaching the mastery of the mature translucent style, all ingredients of the phanolith can be found. In addition, the appearance of moving figures in light and floating clothing is what JBS would create in the following years. He was close to transforming the richness of his early drawings into the painted character of a persistent, shining white porcelain on a coloured background.



The work of JBS is synonymous with phanolith. The finely modelled white porcelain (3) combines relief with an image that emerges from the translucency of the material. JBS simulates changing light, shadows, depth and plasticity by varying the brightness of the white porcelain. Similar to a painter, he explores translucency to form a three-dimensional illusion beyond the heights and depths of the relief. Unlike the lithophane technique (4), phanolith meets the challenge to amalgamate the translucent backlight image with the real plasticity of the design. In addition, it is the thinner areas that appear in a darker tint. The local light forms in a combination of direct reflections at the surface and the back-scattered light from layers underneath. It is this local diffuse light that gives the phanolith relief its softness and airiness. This is best seen when the item is not directly illuminated but is positioned close to a diffuse light source. Out of both, the surface relief and the backlight image, JBS created a new kind of illusion unrivalled in relief art. It gave birth to the phanolith.



The story of the only blueprints available of JBS' work goes back to the end of World War II. Under the auspices of Ludwig Winkel, JBS' grandson Erich Stahl (born 1931) studied at Villeroy & Boch as an apprentice to learn the old tradition of copper engraving. A student of his father Hans gave him notice of some artefacts lying within the debris of the destroyed factory building. The younger Stahl went to where the debris had been deposited and grabbed a bundle of papers sticking out. Only years later, as an artist in his own right, he realised the treasure he had made.

These drafts and blueprints by JBS give us insight into the process of the creation of a new item of phanolith. An example is the jardiniere ensemble. There exist two versions, both realised in porcelain. They vary in style concerning character, historical setting and ornaments. Though the blueprints of the jardiniere differ in various details from the phanolith item, there is an astounding similarity. The precision of the drawings shows the concentration, in which the design and relief were finalised.


From oral tradition in the family we know about the material Jean-Baptiste Stahl used: Parian (5). Phanolith was done in a slipcasting process with rare skill. The traces of this process may be found in small imperfections on otherwise masterly pieces: a tiny bubble in the background porcelain, line traces of a mould, background porcelain leaking from underneath into the white relief, traces of white porcelain on the entire surface. Due to the process, the backside or inner surfaces are flat and smooth. Specific variations between different items from the same mould shed light on the craftsmanship. At a close look, the background porcelain seems to have translucent properties as well. Using the same slip coloured by pigments avoided internal stress with the relief when fired.

Biographical Notes

Jean-Baptiste Stahl was born on 20 June 1869 in Oberbetschdorf, Alsace, as the son of Louis Stahl (born 1843) and Anna Maria Braun (born 1841) (6). He was married to Angela Bausch. They had four children: Hans, the twins Peter and Adolf and Katharina. His son Hans Stahl (1898-1978) worked with him at Villeroy & Boch, Mettlach, until JBS' death on 31 January 1932. JBS closely co-operated with the head of the painters section at Villeroy & Boch, his friend Paul Winkel. They both retired in the same year and both died only a few months later.

Within the college of the company, Jean-Baptiste Stahl worked as a teacher for design. Hans Stahl succeeded him as head of the modellers section. During that time, Hans' son Erich had already accompanied him to the studio, where he made his first drawings and paintings. JBS' work gained him a gold medal at the 1900 World's Fair in Paris. At the stand of Villeroy & Boch, besides other items two huge Phanolith wall plates could be seen, 220 cm high and 60 cm wide, each. At least one of them entered the Spetz collection in Isenheim, Alsace. (7)


(1.) 1899-1903, concluded from topics, style and similarity to items #235557, #3041.

(2.) Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887), sculptor and painter.

(3.) Erich Stahl: "The main ingredient of the material was kaolinite. It is porcelain. Your great grandfather started to work with porcelain." Private communication.

(4.) Phanolith and lithophane have essentially the same radicals. Both techniques take advantage of a modelling of translucency of porcelain reliefs, though in a fundamentally different way. Lithophanes were common in the 19th century.

(5.) Henderson, Jim (1998) "What's This Parian Stuff?", Prosit, p 867, Stein Collectors International, US.

(6.) Schmitter, Marcel (1982). "Die Elsassischen Steinzeugtopfer". Rheinisches Jahrbuch fur Volkskunde. Bonn: F Dummler. ISBN 978-3-427-88251-0.

(7.) Seder, Anton; Leitschuh, Friedrich (1901). "Elsass-Lothringische Privatsammlungen (Sammlung Spetz Isenheim)". Das Kunstgewerbe in Elsass-Lothringen (Strassburg i. Els: Ludolf Beust, Verlagsbuchhandlung) 1: pp 43-44, 109, 111-112, 124, 131, 140

Branko Stahl is the great grandson of the artist, Jean-Baptiste Stahl. He lives in Germany.
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Author:Stahl, Branko
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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