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European Portrait Painting on Porcelain

European Portrait Painting on Porcelain

The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – August 2005

by Frederick Glauser European Portrait Painting on Porcelain

A portrait is an accurate portrayal of the subject’s anatomic and physiognomic features conferring recognition to the observer. Implicit in this definition is the artist’s ability to elicit the subject’s ‘inner presence’ or ‘character.’ This definition, which has evolved over the ages, would not have been understood by the ancient Greeks, whose full-length portrait statues (of which we have very few examples) were idealized and depicted subjects as scholars, statesmen, warriors, high priests etc., but not as individuals with unique facial features. In contrast, the Romans produced portrait head busts and coins with a familial likeness of emperors and their relatives. Roman painters were capable of producing life like portraits as evidenced by funeral and wall painting from Pompeii (although we have no way of knowing if these renditions accurately reflected the individuals depicted).

Over the ensuing 1,000 years, painters incorporated their sponsor or patron’s full-length portraits into religious painting. By the 14th century the patron’s facial features, which were depicted in profile and with little perspective or depth, became more individually correct and recognizable. The first, what might be loosely termed ‘modern’ three quarter three dimensional in-depth view of the human face, the so called ‘autonomous portrait’, is an oil on wood entitled Portrait of Robert de Masmines, circa 1425 painted by the Flemish artist Robert Campin (1375/80-1444). Campin also painted one of the first autonomous woman portraits appropriately entitled Portrait of a Woman, circa 1430 (see Fig. 12 on page 42).

Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) arguably the best known and talented of the Flemish painters of this era, expanded the techniques, sophistication and details of portrait painting and his influence spread throughout Europe. He produced one of the masterpieces of western art in 1434, Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife Giovanna Cenami (The Arnolfini Marriage).

Surprisingly, many Italian painters of the early Renaissance including Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) reverted to the ancients’ use of profile in portraits of women. The use of profile was felt to flatter the sitter since it down-played her physicality and embodied or portrayed beauty, virtuousness and high morals, all attributes respected throughout the centuries. The depiction of women in profile continued well into the 16th century. However, the portraits of Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) stood in contrast to this style. In his genius he presented enigmatic women (such as the Mona Lisa) en face while searching for universal or idealized beauty. Over the next several hundred years interest in women as subjects waxed and waned as court, state and ecclesiastical portraiture, mainly of famous and important men, gained ascendancy.

There were exceptions to this general rule as evidenced by the works of the Italian Raffaello Santi known as Raphael (1483-1520), the Flemish painters Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) revitalized an interest in portraiture of women with his elegant and sensuous Portrait of Maria de Tassis (1629/30) Well into the 18th century, portrait painting was considered secondary to historical painting in artistic importance. Women painters such as Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) and Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721-1782) kept interest in women portraits alive. Experimentation in portraiture was ongoing as evidenced by Francisco de Goya Y Lucientes’ (1746-1828) innovative, life-size presentation of the same woman naked and clothed (The Naked and the Clothed Maja). Perhaps as a reaction to what many critics felt was this ‘profane’ portrayal of women, 19th century portraiturists such as Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842) and Joseph Karl Stieler (1781-1858) returned to the classical presentation of woman. Interest in the accurate representation of the portrait subject declined with the introduction of the photographic camera in the mid 1800s. Painters such as James Abbott McNeal Whistler (1834-1903) and James Singer Sargent (1856-1925) produced more subjective, interpretive and abstract portraits. The Abstract Impressionists, Surrealists, Cubists and Dadaists fractured, dissected and reassembled the portrait often to the point of non-recognition by the observer.


1870 TO 1915

It appears paradoxical that as interest in classical portrait painting on canvas declined, production of and consumer interest in portraits (particularly of beautiful and/or well known women) on porcelain rose. The factors responsible for this phenomena are unclear but may include the following: the Industrial Revolution and rise of capitalism produced, among its’ many other social and economic effects, a rising ‘middle class’ with more disposable income, as with the royalty and the landed gentry before them, these newly wealthy citizens wished to show their sophistication and taste by acquiring high quality display art work among which was portraiture on porcelain, the changing role of women in society and the demand for equality and respect was reflected in the ‘classic’ portraits of women, the public reaction against the poorly understood and possibly politically dangerous portrait interpretation by Cubists, Dadaists, etc. led to a desire for more traditional and ‘safe’ paintings including portraits on porcelain, a realization by porcelain manufacturers that their products not only had to have artistic integrity, but had to be competitive and desirable for the companies to survive, with a return of more traditional monarchial nation-states in the late 1800s more classical art was stressed, the important role of women in the china painting movement that swept Europe and particularly America in the late 1800s and with the advent of photographic portraiture, classical trained portrait painters sought work where it was available and many may have been employed by porcelain manufacturers.

Whatever the reasons, there was an increase in production of portrait painting on plates, cups and saucers, vases, urns, chocolate pots, ewers, pitchers and plaques during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Although produced for commercial reasons nonetheless many of the portraits on porcelain were of very high quality and should be appreciated for artistic achievement and beauty in their own right. The remainder of this article will explore the porcelain manufactories, painters, artistic subjects and present state of the market for high quality hand painted women portraiture on porcelain. Porcelain plaques, the best-known and highest quality being that produced by Koniglichen Porzellan Manufaktur (KPM: Royal Porcelain Manufactory) of Berlin is a topic unto itself and will not be included in the present discussion.


Limoges in France, RS Prussia in Germany and many Austrian and Bavarian firms produced hand painted and transfer portraits on porcelain during the late 1800 and early 1900s. Although transfer portraits are considered less desirable than those hand painted, manufacturers such as the RS Prussia companies did produce very high quality transfer porcelain pieces that command high prices today. Generally, the quality of the hand painted portraits from the above companies was inferior to those produced by the Royal Vienna and Sévres imitators and the various Dresden factories.

The late 19th early 20th century demand for portraits on porcelain was heralded by a small amount of porcelain portraiture produced by the Royal-Polish-Electoral-Saxonian Porcelain Manufactory of Meissen earlier in the 19th century. Meissen, founded in 1710 under the patronage of Augustus the Strong of Saxony, was the first European factory to produce hard-paste porcelain. Meissen’s classical, allegorical and contemporary figures and hand painted porcelain decorations on plates, vases, dinner services etc. were acknowledged to be the finest in Europe. Most of the decorations on these latter pieces consisted of flowers/bugs/butterflies, harbor scenes, chinoiserie scenes, Watteau tableaus and topographical tableaus.

Portrait painting was not a large or important part of Meissen’s output, but from 1814-1820 this manufactory produced high quality portraits on cups of deceased royal subjects including but not limited to, King Joseph of Austria, Queen Maria Theresa, Queen Marie Josepha of Poland, King Friedrich August II of Saxony, Peter and Catherine the Great of Russia, Louis Dauphin of France, Queen Charlotte of England, and Marie Antoinette of France, among others. These high quality cups and saucers were probably intended as gifts to royal households and may have been produced to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of monarchal rule. In 1835 Meissen produced cups with portraits of the children of the King of Saxony and a portrait cup of Prince Albert of Saxony as a young child after the 1833 painting on canvas by Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein. These pieces were also intended for the royal household.

The Sévres Porcelain Manufactory was founded as a soft-paste factory in 1738 and operated in the Royal Chateau of Vincennes. The factory was known for its’ gilded and painted figurines, romantic themes, Rococo style and lavish decorations. Its mission was (and is) to furnish French palaces and official residences at home and abroad and produce quality porcelain for diplomatic presentations, international competition and wealthy private clientele. In 1759 the factory was moved to Sévres and was designated royal property by King Louis XV. After 1768 hard paste, in addition to the soft paste porcelain, was produced; after about 1805 hard paste porcelain only was produced.

Over the next 50 years Sévres continued to produce a variety of high quality porcelain including portraits on porcelain. The subjects included the Kings and Queens of France and their family, members of the French Royal court, Napoleon I, Josephine etc. These pieces were intended for the royal families and the rulers of France.

Beginning in the early to mid 1800s a number of small independent French factories attempted to mimic Sévres quality porcelain and even employed faux Sévres marks. These so called ‘Sévres-style’ porcelain items were usually not of the quality produced by the true Sévres factory. Most of the true Sévres porcelain portrait items are in museums, royal and private collections. The items identified as ‘Sévres’ available at auctions, shows and shops are ‘Sévres-style’ and are not true Sévres even though the backstamps may look original.

These portrait plates are not of the quality produced by Meissen, the Vienna imitators or Dresden, although an occasional piece may come close (Fig. 6, 8). The Imperial State Manufactory Vienna (Royal Vienna) was founded by a Dutchman, Claude Innocentius du Paquier, in 1719 in Vienna and awarded exclusive rights to produce porcelain in Austria by Emperor Karl VI. It was the second European factory, after Meissen, to produce hard-paste porcelain. The factory is best known for excellent neoclassical themed and complex figural porcelain. When his imperial privileges expired in 1744, du Paquier sold the factory to the state. The factory continued to produce quality porcelain, but due to competition from factories employing mass production, it ceased production in 1865.

There is no evidence that the original Royal Vienna factory ever produced portraiture porcelain and certainly could not have done so after 1865 (when most of this type of porcelain was produced) since it no longer existed. Most of the portraiture produced and discussed in this article derives from a multitude of smaller, mainly European factories, which replicated the Royal Vienna ‘beehive’ mark and sold their wares, at least implicitly, as true Royal Vienna. Nonetheless some of the highest artistic quality portrait pieces still in demand today were produced by these small manufactories (Fig. 1, 3, 9, 13). The term ‘Dresden porcelain’ is a misnomer … there was not a single factory with the name ‘Dresden’ since over 200 manufactories in the Dresden area produced porcelain. Six are considered major manufacturers (the Donath, Hirsch, Klemm, Lamm, Thieme and Wolfsohn Companies), 29 second tier in size, but not in quality and the rest very small single or several person shops. Many of these operations lasted for only a few years and amalgamation was not unknown. Nonetheless, some of the highest quality porcelain portrait pieces were produced by these manufactories and are still highly sought after by collectors (Fig. 2, 10, 11).


Most of the porcelain painters copied their portraits from earlier well known oil on canvas works by such famous artists as Rembrandt van Rijn (Self Portrait, Man with Gold Helmet, A Polish Nobleman/Petersburg), Thomas Gainsborough (Portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire), Baron Francois Gerard (1770-1837) (Madame Recamier), Anthony van Dyck (Children of Charles I) and Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) (The Vestal Virgin,) Fig. 10.

Favorite subjects included famous men (Napoleon, Washington, Lincoln, Kings of France and England) and women (Josephine, Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great of Russia and royalty of other nations). Beautiful, if not quite as famous or infamous, women were a favorite subject of porcelain painters and their customers. Many of these porcelain painting were copied from three oil on canvas painters … Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Joseph Karl Stieler and Angelo Asti.

Finally, many very fine portraits on porcelain cannot be easily attributed to specific oil on canvas artists and a small percent may not be copies but originals (Fig. 3, 5, 7). Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842) was a well-known and respected French artist who many consider to be the most famous woman portraitist of 18th century Europe. Her portraits are artistically accomplished, unique to the sitter and captivating. Her lifetime artistic output exceeded 900 paintings including multiple self portraits, 30 portraits of her friend Marie Antoinette (Fig. 1) and over 600 portraits of French, Russian, Italian and German royalty and other prominent figures. The latter individuals she befriended and painted after fleeing France at the start of the Revolution in 1789 (she was a Royalist). She traveled extensively and lived in the above countries until returning to France in 1809. During her exile she gained considerable recognition and was a member of the Academies of Florence, Rome, Bologna, St Petersburg and Berlin in addition to being a member of the French Saint-Luc’s Academy since 1774.

Joseph Karl Stieler (1781-1858) was a well-known neoclassical portraitist who studied under, among others, Francois Gerard (1770-1837) a student of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). Stieler was the favorite painter of King Ludwig I of Bavaria (1786-1868). King Ludwig I, grandfather of the well known, eccentric King Ludwig II (Mad King Ludwig) who loved to build castles, was eccentric in his own right. Examples abound including his abhorrence of carriages, his perchance for knocking off hats of people he met, dressing like an English fox hunter and enjoying odd and peculiar people. In addition he devoted a picture gallery (the ‘Schonheitsgalerie’ in the Schloss Nuremberg, Munich, Germany) to beautiful, chaste and virtuous woman of his kingdom. Apparently the King personally selected the woman, most of whom were either royalty or what now would be considered the upper middle class and commissioned Stieler to paint their portraits. Legend has it that, as a reward for their cooperation, the women received the dresses in which they were painted. Stieler painted 36 women from 1827-1842; their portraits are still on view at the Schloss Nurenberg. Many of these portraits were reproduced on higher quality Vienna and Dresden porcelain pieces (Fig. 2, 11).

Stieler also painted a portrait of the infamous actress and singer Lola Montez, nee Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert who infatuated King Ludwig I and became his mistress. Lola was known for her terrible singing, acting and temper, her intemperance, loose morals, lying, erratic behavior and scheming. Nonetheless Ludwig fell in love with her and bestowed on her the title of Countess of Landsfeld in 1847. Her outrageous behavior and meddling in Bavarian politics led to riots and a demand for her to leave the country. The King refused and was forced to abdicate the throne in 1849. Shortly afterwards Lola Montez abandoned the king and fled the country. Legend has it that the song from Damn Yankees “Whatever Lola Wants” by Adler and Ross was based on her tumultuous life.

Angelo Asti (1807-1903) was a well-known French painter who exhibited at the Paris Salon. Among his works are portraits on silk in the Art Nouveau style of beautiful woman. In 1904 some of these portraits were chosen to decorate a calendar and were a huge commercial success. Some have argued that these Asti women were the forerunners of the present day pin-up and glamour calendars. Asti’s women appeared on high quality detailed colored printed postcards (Fig. 4) and were reproduced on plates and vases produced by the Royal Vienna imitators and Dresden manufacturers.


Prices vary according to age, condition, manufacturer, type (vases are generally more expensive than plates), size (large pieces are generally more expensive than smaller pieces), quality of the portrait painting, amount and intricacy of gilding and scarcity among other factors. Artist signed pieces, particularly those by Wagner, tend to bring higher prices. The venue where portraiture porcelain is offered plays a very important role in determining price. For example, during any given month eBay lists approximately 500 items in the “Porcelain and Glass” category under the heading ‘portrait plates’. Many portraits are transfer and lower quality hand painted pieces, but approximately 10 to 12 plates are hand painted and of high quality. Prices for these latter pieces range from approximately $800 to $3,000.

ARTFACT (internet) lists approximately 155 Royal Vienna portrait plates sold at international auction houses over the last 5 years with prices ranging from $700 to $5,500. At the annual Baltimore Summer Antique Fair with 550 United States and foreign dealers there are approximately 40-50 portraiture porcelain items for sale including plates, vases and cups and saucers. Prices vary from $900 to $6,500. Prices at shops are commensurate with those at antique shows. A dozen Richard Wehsner’s (Dresden) portrait plates depicting various famous women sold at the Main Auction Galleries (Cincinnati) on April 11, 2005 for $8,250 (including 10% buyer’s fee). Finally, the photographs accompanying this article gives the reader some idea of the porcelain pieces available, the prices realized and the venue where the items were sold during the last several years.

I would like to thank Dr. Waltraud Neuwirth for personal correspondence and invaluable information on Royal Vienna porcelain and the collectors who allowed me to photograph their porcelain items.

What are your thoughts on portrait painting on porcelain?

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