In Holland in the 17th Century, "tiles migrated from floors to walls," says Steven Kern. "Why? Because ceramic is soft-baked, not like ironstone or stonewear. When you walk on it, it's going to chip."

But the moisture that cities in the Low Countries endure (Amsterdam is 13 feet below sea level) was a greater factor. Marble and wood were becoming more available for floors in houses of the wealthy. "Tiles became the perfect moisture barrier when put on the walls from baseboard to wainscot levels and joined to the floor," says Kern.

Builders also used tiles to cover the base of a hearth because they're easy to clean. "In a Dutch house around 1650," Kern continues, "people lived in one big room. The idea of differentiating rooms -- bedroom, kitchen, living room -- didn't exist then. You had a hearth in the middle of the room. It was the focus of the room and the source of heat. But you cooked in that same stove. So being able to clean up was important, because when you were receiving people in the same room you cooked in, efficiency in getting things turned around from the one purpose to another was desirable."

Kern is the curator for European art at the San Diego Museum of Art, which has been exhibiting "Seventeenth-Century Dutch Tiles from the Museum's Collection" since September 18. Visitors can see the collection of 240 tiles until January 9.

In 1928 George Tucker Dodd donated 400 Dutch tiles to the museum. The current exhibit is the first to display a comprehensive arrangement of the museum's holdings. A recent acquisition of Dutch etchings and engravings supplements the exhibit by showing many sources of the tiles' surface designs.

In most people's minds, "Dutch tile" signifies the blue and white delft varieties. Kern explains that "the blue and white go back to one of the first Dutch East India Company boats coming from China with loads of blue and white porcelain. That caused a revolution in taste," he says.

"But the tile industry of the Netherlands," observes Kern, "goes back to the majolica, an Italian word for ceramics painted in different colors. Artisans from Italy relocated to what is present-day Belgium to meet the tastes of the wealthy."

Because of its maritime trading, according to Kern, the Low Countries had become the wealthiest region in Europe by the middle of 17th Century. Yet they were still part of the Spanish empire. Through Spain, the Dutch industry was influenced by the Islamic tradition of tile making.

The kilns eventually centered in the Netherlands' northern provinces, the most famous being Holland. In the north, the Rhine and the Maas Rivers empty into the sea and deposit the silt from which the clay for producing terra cotta comes.

I ask Kern whether any great Dutch tile makers became famous. "Many of the tiles have marks on the back," he says, "and the marks are probably lot numbers or dates of production. There may be a few cases of monograms. But the tiles were made by craftsmen, and the notion of being recognized for your work and creativity was not important. Some of the tiles' designs were also done by the craftsmen, while others were adapted from contemporary prints. So we have fine art and popular art coming together."

Kern shows me two tiles whose designs appear to copy in different ways the same militia scene from a drawing by Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius (1558--1617). Militia scenes should not be surprising, says Kern. "Don't forget that from 1568 to 1648, during the Eighty Years War, the Dutch were fighting Spain for independence. Military garb was part of everyday life."

Prints by Dutch artists (298 were donated to the museum) show a variety of images that tile manufacturers used as models, including mythological figures, flowers, birds, rural scenes, and biblical symbols.

What technique was used to preserve the image on the tiles?

After a white glaze was put on the tiles and they were fired once, explains Kern, "the design would be 'pounced on.' That meant a stencil with little holes and some material like charcoal dust that would go through the holes -- leaving a dot design. The painter would follow with cobalt or other colors. Then a final layer of glaze would be put over the top and the tiles would be fired a final time. Differences in quality would then depend on where in the kiln a tile was sitting or whether the glaze ran or whether the firing went too hot or not hot enough."

To get to the point of painting, however, tiles had to be cut to the standard five-inch squares from a large roll of clay. A "pug mill" was used to knead the clay. "As anyone in ceramics knows," says Kern, "kneading your own clay is a good way to build up strength in hands and arms, but also make yourself sore."-- Joe Deegan

Seventeenth-Century Dutch Tiles from the Museum's Collection San Diego Museum of Art Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Through January 9 Balboa Park 1450 El Prado Cost: $4 to $9

Info: 619-232-7931 or www.sdmart.org

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