Hand-Painted Porcelain: Women Played a Major Role – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – February 2003
by Debby DuBay
Collecting hand-painted Limoges porcelain can become addictive, but in our world today there are much worse addictions! Limoges porcelain is the finest hard-paste porcelain in the world and when decorated can become one of the most beautiful forms of art expression. The starting point for the production of European hard-paste porcelain was the discovery of the porcelain manufacturing process in 18th century Dresden by Johann Friedrich Boettger, followed by the discovery of kaolin in the Limoges region of France.
Limoges, the name of a city in France, became the generic name for all of the porcelain that was produced in one of the many factories in the Limoges region. It has been mass produced from the 19th century well into the 20th century and created a new medium for painting.
Painting on porcelain was a profitable commercial industry for artists with the Limoges factories in France, with the American decorating studios in the United States also becoming well known. Their painted pieces of Limoges have become very collectible today. (My second book in the series on collecting Limoges – [amazon_link id=”0764316389″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Antique Limoges at Home[/amazon_link] – has a concise listing of factory china painters and their subject matter.)
In America, by the turn of the 20th century, painting on porcelain had become a cottage industry for more than 25,000 talented artists, most of them women who were not allowed to achieve professional status in that era. Women like Adelaide Alsop Robineau made history when in 1899, along with her husband Samuel, she published Keramic Studio, the first monthly magazine on china painting.
Thousands of unknown artists are responsible for the hand-painted pieces of Limoges that collectors proudly display today. Each piece is as unique as the talented individual who painted it. These pieces of Limoges would be nothing other than a white blank (which a few might call beautiful in this form) if not for the artists who were devoted to painting on porcelain.
During the 19th century in the Limoges region, there were approximately 32 factories and 62 decorating studios. The number of factories increased to 48 by 1920.
Each factory had its own porcelain and decorating marks. Many had several different marks during their porcelain production years. A piece of Limoges will have a mark under the glaze, indicating the factory that produced it, and it may have a mark over the glaze that identifies the factory that decorated the piece. Currently there are more than 400 known marks to identify factories that produced and decorated Limoges. One of the best known is the Haviland factory. Other examples are the Jean Pouyat (J.P.L.) and Tressemann & Vogt (T&V) factories. To answer one of the most asked questions: Many of these factory marks do not include the word “Limoges” or “France.” Today, Limoges is still considered the mecca for hard-paste porcelain in France, and there are about 40 factories currently in production exporting table china, dinnerware sets, and Limoges boxes.
Limoges blanks, the shape of the piece of porcelain, came in all forms and sizes: dinnerware, decorative pieces such as chargers and plaques, chocolate, coffee and teapots, jardinières and planters, lamps, punch bowls, tankards, cider pitchers and vases. These Limoges blanks were produced in the factories in France. The blank was then decorated in one of the factories in France, or exported to the United States. Once in America, the blanks were sold to one of the professional decorating factories in the United States, to china painting schools, or to a department store for one of the many amateur artists of the era to purchase and hand paint.
The technique known as the standard method of painting became popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This technique utilizes the translucency of china paint to create depth and highlight. Background is used to the advantage on these pieces. Color, reflection, shadow and shapes can all be included in the background to add interest and new dimensions to our painting. The entire piece is painted, with the background color ranging from a very light wash to a very dark color. The design is then painted on freehand or by tracing, and the background is worked in around the design. It is the painting followed by the firing process, with subsequent painting and firing, that gives the porcelain its highlights and a three-dimensional look.
An important pioneer in introducing porcelain painting in the United States was Edward Lycett. In 1861 he moved to New York and opened up his own business for porcelain art. His studios produced elaborate designs and monogrammed china services for hotels, clubs, wealthy individuals and for the White House. With china painting becoming a favorite pastime and popular diversion for women from 1877 to 1879, Lycett became a prominent instructor of the art in St Louis and Cincinnati.
The majority of the amateur American china painters were those women who were allowed creative occupations, and those who considered it a hobby. Woman played significant roles in the birth of the china-painting movement in America. In 1873 in Cincinnati, Karl Lagenbeck, an immigrant ceramic chemist, and his neighbor, Maria Longworth Nicols (1849-1932) experimented with overglaze china paints. Maria, a student at the McMicken School of Design, placed some of her decorated pieces on display at a student exhibition. Several classmates, specifically one Mary Louise McLaughlin (1847-1939), was so smitten by the beauty of Nicols’ work that she requested their instructor, Ben Pitman, to purchase the necessary supplies to paint on porcelain. With so much interest in this new art form, Pitman engaged Marie Eggers, an immigrant who had studied the art of china painting in the Dresden factory, to teach a class in 1874. This group of students entered their wares in the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and were responsible for exposing millions of Americans to this new art form.
It is Marie Eggers who is credited with igniting the passion for china painting by teaching her craft. By 1877 there had been several books published in Europe on directions for painting on china for amateurs, but it is student Mary Louise McLaughlin who published the first book in America – China Painting – A Practical Manual for the Use of Amateurs in the Decoration of Hard Porcelain. McLaughlin’s infectious enthusiasm for this art form spread throughout the United States, and she is credited with educating the general public and those who could not attend classes on the art of china painting. Her book included information on tracing on china, china painting techniques and directions for gilding, firing, etc. In 1879 McLaughlin formed the Woman’s Pottery Club. By 1881, there were major china painting studios in Boston, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and New York, including The Osgood Art School established in New York City by Adelaide Harriett Osgood (1842-1910). But it is McLaughlin who is credited with influencing the entire nation and setting the standards for porcelain clubs established throughout the United States.
By 1882, Maria Longworth Nichols had established the Rookwood Studio in Cincinnati. It is there that Pauline Jacobus went to study in the fall of 1882. Pauline and her husband established The Pauline Pottery Co. in Chicago. Pauline Pottery ware was more like Italian Majolica ware than the hand-painted pieces likened to those of Mary Louise McLaughlin. But it was Wilder A. Pickard’s role as a salesman or manufacturer’s representative for Pauline Pottery that set the foundation for later success for Pickard Hand Painted China.
The biggest influence on porcelain art in America during the early 1900s was Adelaide Alsop Robineau (1865-1929). Wanting to be independent at a time when independence and individualism for women was unacceptable, Robineau was a role model for women of the early 20th century. Teaching herself the art of painting on porcelain, she soon became known as a decorator. In order to expand her skills, Robineau studied watercolors with the American master, William Merritt Chase. In May 1899, Robineau and her husband published the Keramic Studio. Her goal was to meet the needs of china painters who were “…struggling in their efforts to reach high ideals…” Her publications spurred on the interest in china painting and coincided with the large shipments of blank Limoges porcelain arriving from France.
Women in American history tend to be forgotten and their roles secondary to their male counterparts. In the early 1900s there were hundreds of unnamed and unknown fine female china painters and artists who lapsed into obscurity because no one felt their lives needed documentation. Allowed creative occupations and hobbies, they were never allowed to achieve professional status like their male counterparts.
The art of painting on porcelain would be a lost art if not for the approximately 3,000 talented china painters in the world today.
A drastic reduction of china painters in the United States can be attributed to the changes brought about by World War II. During the war the importation of white porcelain from Europe and China came to a standstill. Munitions factories needed every able body available, and American housewives stepped into occupations historically held by men. The roles of women forever changed; careers took the place of hobbies. If it was not for a handful of enthusiastic woman, specifically Nettie Pillet who began publishing The China Decorator in 1956, the fine art of china painting may have become a lost art in America.
In the 1980s trade resumed with China, and blank pieces of porcelain once again became readily available to the china painter. But our 39th President, James Earl Carter Jr., had the greatest impact of all. On Jan. 3, 1980, President Carter declared China Painting as a “fine art” and designated July 1980 as “National Porcelain Art Month.” President Carter’s proclamation stated: “The art of painting on porcelain has been recognized as a fine art by all the world’s great civilizations and has enriched museums in many countries for hundreds of years. This art form, requiring great skill, training, and talent has been enthusiastically adopted and enhanced by thousands of talented Americans whose labors will awe and delight generations yet to come.”
Currently, there are two major organizations that promote the art of painting on porcelain: International Porcelain Artists and Teachers, Inc., widely known as IPAT Inc., and the World Organization of China Painters (WOCP). These organizations publish Porcelain Artist, and The China Painter, respectively, and along with The China Decorator newsletter are the major sources for information for the china painter today. There are also many state and local clubs (some affiliated with the major organizations) along with clubs around the world. In addition there is the Porcelain Painters International On-Line Association (www.porcelainpainters.com).
IPAT Inc. is a nonprofit organization chartered in Texas in 1962. In 1959, 12 porcelain artists met in Dallas to contribute to the revival of porcelain art. Initially named the National China Painting Teachers Organization, international growth made it necessary to change the name. Today, IPAT is made up of more than 3,000 porcelain painters in approximately 50 countries around the globe, from beginning to advanced porcelain artists to career professionals. IPAT promotes the fine art of painting on porcelain through conventions and exhibitions around the world, workshops, evaluations, and an educational Certification Program to advance artists’ knowledge and hone their painting skills. IPAT maintains a corporate office and a museum at 204 East Franklin St., Grapevine, Texas.
The museum, a quaint little house nestled off Main Street in the Texas town, is a tiny treasure chest. The house is filled with china cabinets that are chock full of lovely hand-painted pieces of porcelain art from vases, porcelain portrait paintings, to tea cups. All items have been donated to the museum and include antique and contemporary pieces. A visit to this charming historical site is warranted if in the Dallas area. Admission is free, and the museum is technically open daily from 10 to 4, but being it is run by a nonprofit organization I suggest you call ahead.
IPAT’s Porcelain Artist is published bimonthly and is filled with beautiful photographs of exquisite hand-painted porcelain art done by members, articles on the artists, along with information on unique and different painting techniques shared around the world. Teachers, students and porcelain admirers are welcome to subscribe to this lovely magazine. For more information on IPAT, visit the website www.ipat.org.
Highly collectable today, Limoges boxes have had a place in history since the need arose for safe keeping of small precious objects. Used through the centuries as message boxes, presentation boxes, boxes to hold comfits (tiny, strongly scented sweets), patch boxes used by aristocracy to hold small silk, thin leather or taffeta patches used as adornments or to conceal blemishes on their face and body, snuff boxes and boxes to hold priceless sentimental items such as a lock of child’s hair or a babies tooth. In the 20th century Limoges boxes were in vogue, and cigarette boxes to heart-shaped boxes were produced. In the mid-1950s, Charles Martine began importing covered boxes into the United States. In the mid-1960s, Charles Martine Company began importing hinged boxes into the United States. Today there are thousands of Limoges boxes available on the market. Some are quality pieces of porcelain, the fabulous pieces of miniature art hand painted by French factory artists. Buyer beware, as boxes with “LIMOGES FRANCE” under the glaze attest that the porcelain was produced in France. This does not guarantee that the piece is hand painted. Peint main or peint a la mein, means hand painted in French, but does not guarantee the box was hand painted in France. There are thousands of boxes flooding the market that are rejected seconds from the Limoges factories. These boxes are being painted here in the United States and being sold as decorated Limoges boxes. When purchasing new boxes, it is wise for serious collectors or those who collect as an investment to purchase Limoges boxes from well-known companies.
The World Organization of China Painters was conceived by Pauline Salyer in 1962 and incorporated and chartered in 1967. Its goal is “to educate people in the fine art of Porcelain China Painting.” Headquartered in Oklahoma City, it has a large, lovely museum open to the public and hosts annual conventions, seminars, mini-workshops and classes throughout the year. Its magazine The China Painter is filled with photographs of hand-painted items by china painters all over the United States. In addition, the magazine is full of wonderful information on mixing paint, painting techniques, elements of design, and a section called “Sharing Our Library,” which contains historical information on everything from china painters to firing techniques. For more information on WOCP, visit the web site www.theshop.net/wocporg .
China Decorator magazine was founded in 1956 by Nettie Pillet; an artist who wanted to bring porcelain artists together and share ideas, revitalizing china painting in America. Nettie fashioned her magazine after the original The China Decorator that was published from the late 1800s into the early 1900s. China Decorator has a large reference and resource library for the china painter, teacher and artist. For further information visit the web site www.chinadec.com.
In many instances, a uniquely created hand-painted Limoges piece, created by an unknown female artisan, is as beautiful a piece of fine art as any found in a museum. And, when incorporated into a collector’s personal decorating style, a piece of hand-painted Limoges can make a statement as individual as that collector.
Addictive? Well, who isn’t smitten by fine art?
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