Ernest Chaplet began his career in 1848 as an apprentice at Sèvres. In 1882, after more than 30 years in the employ of large ceramics firms, he opened an atelier where, assisted by Albert-Louis Dammouse and funded by Haviland & Company, he created simple stoneware forms ornamented with Japanese-inspired designs. Within three years, Chaplet quietly succeeded in producing a true sang de boeuf glaze, first on stoneware and later on porcelain. He later took full control of the studio and continued production of the glazed stoneware that is still considered revolutionary. A pioneer in the artistic renewal that started in France in the 1870s, Ernest Chaplet was among the most innovative ceramists of his era. According to art critic Gabriel Mourey (The Studio, Nov. 1897, vol. 12, no. 56. p. 112), "Chaplet may truly be styled the father of the whole [French art pottery] movement: he it is who is the real restorer of a neglected, old-fashioned art, the secrets and methods of which seemed lost forever."
Born in the village of Sèvres, he had a happy, carefree childhood. His parents, who owned a cabaret (called Franc Postillon), encouraged him to enjoy school and play freely with his friends in the surrounding parks and woodlands. The senior Chaplet was acquainted with a number of men who were employed at the Sèvres National Manufactory and at small private ceramics ateliers. With his parents' encouragement, he began his career in 1848 (at the age of 13) as an apprentice at Sèvres, where he studied decoration, design and ceramics techniques under the painter Meyer Heine. During his military service in 1857 that he beganworking with Laurin in Boug-la-Reine (Hauts-de-Seine), a firm which manufactured everyday earthenware, painted ware, and majolica. Chaplet was put to work decorating everything from lamp bases to pitchers.
In the early 1870s, during his tenure with Laurin, Chaplet developed barbotine decoration, a method of painting earthenware with liquid clay in a style that resembled the increasingly bold impasto technique of Barbizon and Impressionist painters. It was this accomplishment that attracted the interest of Haviland & Co. Charles Haviland (1839-1921), an American-born porcelain manufacturer, conducted business in France (together with his father and brother) under the name Haviland & Cie from 1864. Charles became the director of the firm in 1866. The next year, after seeing the ceramics at the Exposition Universelle, Charles opened an experimental studio in the suburb of Auteuil, which he put under the direction of Felix Bracquemond. In 1875, Haviland & Co. (whether at the behest of Charles Haviland or Felix Bracquemond is unclear) hired Chaplet to supervise production of barbotine ware. During this period, with more advanced technical facilities at his disposal, Chaplet increased the range of barbotine colors and achieved subtler background shading. While in Auteuil, he engaged designers who were already working in impressionistic and Japanese-inspired styles to produce his designs.
High production costs forced Haviland to close the Auteuil atelier in 1881 but Chaplet convinced the firm to open another atelier on Rue Blomet, Vaugirard, in 1882. When Haviland withdrew its support, Chaplet took full control of the studio and continued production of glazed stoneware. It was at this time that he began his collaboration with the painter Paul Gaugin. Here, assisted by Albert-Louis Dammouse, he made forms ornamented with Japanese-inspired designs in low relief and also painted in colored slips with outlines in gold. Between May and June 1886, Gaugin decorated stoneware, often cylindrical vases and mugs from Chaplet's normal output, with Breton scenes featuring landscapes with figures, sheep, or geese painted in distinctive colored glazes, within a dark outline (a standard technique at Chaplet's workshop). Gaugin also made freely modeled vases, mugs, and other objects in the studio's dark stoneware body. He worked with Chaplet intermittently until 1895.
Drawing upon the philosophy of the English Arts and Crafts movement, Chaplet believed strongly in offering an alternative to mass-production by encouraging a creative workshop atmosphere, where a single individual would both design and create an object. Acting on his own beliefs, Chaplet became France's premiere studio potter. In 1889, he won a gold medal at the Paris Universal Exposition for producing the elusive and highly prized sang de boeuf glaze. In the same year, he settled in Choisy-le-Roi and devoted himself to glaze research. After 1891 he achieved colors ranging from purple to white to celadon. As his glazes became more complex, requiring successive firings in different kiln atmospheres, his forms became simpler. Chaplet ultimately came to believe that glaze alone provided sufficient decoration for the ceramic art of the new millennium. In 1904, Chaplet lost his sight and turned his studio over to his son-on-law, Emile Lenoble.
Gabriel Mourey's conclusion in his 1897 Studio article would have served as a fine epitaph for the ceramist. "Chaplet's gres flambes, or fired stoneware, is and will continue to be regarded as among the finest ceramic work of modern times, both from the artistic and documentary standpoints. An indefatigable worker, he devoted his whole energy to the arduous task … of discovering the process of this art. "