Gypsum plaster has been used for thousands of years but remains a surprisingly modern material.
In geological terms, gypsum is a hydrous calcium sulfate, an evaporite mineral; its chemical formula is CaSO4 2H2O. Gypsum deposits tell the history of the Paris sedimentary basin, which has shaped the region's landscape. The gypsum quarry on the slopes of Cormeilles, roughly 10 kilometres north-west of Paris, had been a landmark for a century, but is currently being reclaimed, as mining continues underground.
From Gypsum to Plaster, and Gypsum Products
After quarrying, the gypsum is crushed and fed to kilns. The gypsum is dehydrated by heating to about 130°C, to drive off the chemically combined water, and then ground to a fine powder, like plaster of Paris.
Gypsum plaster, in powder form, is ready to use by adding water. Its multiple uses include applications in building construction, decoration, casting and molding, agriculture, and water treatment. Industrial plasters and building plasters may include chemical additives, and are used to produce gypsum board, gypsum blocks and rendering materials.
Building Construction, Decoration and Architectural Ornaments
Plasterers' skills, techniques and tools were traditionally handed down from one generation to another. While gypsum board (drywall) was introduced in the United States in the late 19th century and gained in popularity through the first half of the 20th century, French building construction, with lath and plaster walls and ceilings, remained largely unchanged until 1960. The introduction of plasters with longer working times, prefabrication, and mechanical (projection) plastering have changed how plaster is used in construction.
Patrimoine des enduits au plâtre en Île-de-France
This series (in French) examines plaster-rendered facades in the Greater Paris region
"Petit guide pour reconnaître et restaurer une façade en plâtre"
(Short guide on how to recognize and restore a gypsum plaster facade)
Produced by LRMH (Laboratoire de Recherche des Monuments Historiques) / French Ministry of Culture
This booklet reviews the history of gypsum plaster in the greater Paris area, how to recognize these facades, typical disorders, and how to restore them. (The cover shows the historical schoolhouse that was the first home of the museum in Cormeilles.)
"Plâtre. Sols et couvrements intérieurs. Du XIIIe au XIXe siècle"
(Plaster. Floors and interior renders. From the 13th to the 19th century)
Author: Christelle Inizan. Editions du Patrimoine, 2017. Download order form.
Sculptors have used gypsum plaster since ancient times; one of the most traditional casting techniques involves plaster molds that are broken after the casting hardens (the waste mold method). Plaster can also be sculpted directly by carving or modeling, or used with other media.
Authors: Jonathan Barbier and Bruno Bertherat (with the gracious permission of the authors), Cahiers Jaurès 2016/1 (no. 219-220), Société d'Etudes Jaurésiennes, 2016, pp. 119-143 (in French)
par Bruno Bertherat (with the gracious permission of the author), Corps, 2013/1, CNRS Editions, 2013, pp. 97-106 (in French)
THE SURREALIST SCULPTOR GEORGES BOULOGNE
- Le portrait sculpté de Jean Rostand (1958) (in French)
Gypsum plaster has been used across the Mediterranean Basin since ancient times.
There is ample evidence in France dating back to Gallo-Roman times—twenty centuries ago—including in the Paris region and specifically what is now Cormeilles-en-Parisis.
by Vincent Farion, in Une Antiquité moderne, co-published by the French Academy in Rome and the Louvre Museum, Officina Libraria, 2019, pp. 204-206 (in French)
(Plaster into gold, gold into plaster. Words and images, symbols of weath and whiteness)
by Vincent Farion, in L'or blanc: de la métaphore des sens à la réalité environnementale et économique, supplement no. 15 to Cahier de l'ASER, 2020, pp. 37-43 (in French)
- Pierre Chazet, maçon du Limousin à l’île-de-France (XIXe siècle) by Jacques Hantraye (in French)
Gypsum Plaster in History
Gypsum in France
The Paris basin accounts for over 60% of gypsum deposits in France, and many locations—including Montmartre in Paris—continue to show traces of what was once a major industry.
There are also vestiges of gypsum activity in other regions of France—including Provence, the Pyrenees, Burgundy, the foothills of the Alps.
- La Renarde - A Webseries (in French)
This family saga in 12 episodes takes us through time and space. The story begins in the 19th century and continues to the present day in the countryside outside of Paris, the City of Light, Germany and the Swiss Jura. The Musée du Plâtre is a partner in this series, which features the participation of Vincent Farion and Jacques Hantraye, who shed light on the history of plaster in the Seine-et-Marne area southeast of Paris.
- A l'ouest de la butte de Cormeilles-en-Parisis : les carrières souterraines de Montigny - La tuilerie de Cormeilles - La butte de la Tuile ou les carrières à plâtre de Montigny et d'Herblay (in French)
Learn more (in French):
Les Articles du Musée du Plâtre (published by the Museum, download):
HISTORY OF THE CARRIÈRE LAMBERT
Founded nearly 200 years ago by the Lambert family, the open-cast quarry at Cormeilles-en-Parisis became a major site for the plaster and materials industry in the 20th century.
- La grève des plâtrières en 1909 (in French)
Groupe de Recherche sur le Plâtre dans l'Art
The Museum is a partner of the GRPA, a research group that investigates the history, use and conservation of plaster in art.