Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Women's China Painting in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

What started out as a simple Ebay purchase of a bowl that held my fascination, soon turned into not only a collecting obsession, but an education in the subect of women and the arts. So what is it, what is the history behind it, and how does it relate to my own family history?

How Does It Fit In With My Family History?

The family history connection is more of a dotted line. I remember seeing similar pieces in my great-grandmother's china cabinet growing up. Unfortunately, most if not all were lost in the fire at her home in 1979. So when I saw this piece staring back at me from the porcelain lost and found on Ebay, ready to be adopted (for a price, of course), it brought back many memories. Years later, when I was cleaning out my mother's house in New York, I found other similar pieces that had been collected by my great aunt Ethel McCrickert Hannan.

What Is It?

Simply put, this is a hand-painted Limoges china bowl from the studio of Julius H. Brauer in Chicago dated ca. 1910. It was the first piece of hand-painted china that I had purchased and it started me on a journey of collecting similar pieces to the point of obsession. I am partial to the poppy pattern since the color scheme in the main rooms of my home is paprika and pale lemon. I am also a big fan of the Arts & Crafts movement of the early 20th century and this piece is obviously from that era.

How Was It Made?

Beginning in the 1870s, "blank" china pieces were imported from all over Europe, mostly the hard porcelain unique to the Limoges region of France. Art studios had been set up which employed china painting artists to decorate these items later purchased for the home. These bowls, vases, and other items were meticulously decorated by hand - there was no involvement of transfers or mass production. Some pieces were signed and some were left unsigned.

While the Limoges manufacturers had their own in-house studios, most notably Havilland, many blanks were shipped to the United States to be decorated in studios across the Atlantic. It has been said that over 18,000 barrels of Limoge pieces were exported to these shores during the mid to late 19th century alone!

Most of the decorating studios in the United States were located in Chicago - in fact by 1912 there were 49 decorating studios which employed artists working with these blank china pieces. By 1916, the number had jumped to 102. Some of the more famous studios were Pickard, Julius H. Brauer, Whites Art Company, Pitkin & Brooks, and Stouffer.

Who Were These Artists?

Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not many of these studios would employ female artists. Yet some of the most collectible pieces have been executed by women. How did this come to be?

China painting became a very popular pastime beginning in the 1870s and lasting up until World War I when the importation of Limoges blanks was very limited. Just like knitting parties today, women very rarely painted china alone. Groups would gather weekly to work on similar pieces and show off their handiwork. China painting became so popular that even Caroline Scott Harrison, wife of President Benjamin Harrison held such gatherings at the White House.

Blanks could be purchased at fine department stores and studios by these women who probably had enrolled in a local china painting club or society. It was there that they would take painting lessons and progress to completing entire sets of china service.

Did Your Ancestors Paint China?

Unfortunately women artists who painted china and executed some fascinating pieces were considered "amateur" as compared to the "professional" artists of the various studios. Yet the majority of pieces that still exist were more likely painted by an ancestor rather than purchased at a studio. I have several pieces that are signed by women, some including dates, that attest to this particular art movement.

So, right about now, how many of you are getting up to go look at your china cabinets for any hand-painted pieces that could be a connection between you and that female ancestor artist?

Note: a warning to those of you who want to begin collecting hand-painted Limoges, especially the pieces by "amateur" artists. Many items for sale in antique shops and on Ebay might be faked - from the porcelain blank down to the painting. One trick is to actually use transfers but then add some hand-painting so that the stamp "hand painted" can be used on the bottom. Familiarize yourself with the various marks, the artists, and the types of pieces. A good start is looking at the various guides posted at Ebay or purchasing a book containing identification marks and methods of determining whether a piece is true or fake.

This post has been written for the 3rd edition of the Cabinet of Curiosities hosted at Walking the Berkshires on January 21, 2008.


Anonymous said...

This was very fascinating, Thomas. I collect glassware and have a few porcelain pieces from my two grandmothers but I found your information very interesting. Thanks. Cheryl

Lee said...

You done hit my weak spot now, Thomas. I gotta have that bowl! How much, come on now, every man has his price...;-)

Thomas MacEntee said...

Hah! As my great-grandmother used to say, "If you have to ask, you can't afford it!"

Lee said...

Your great-granny was a brilliant woman. :-)

Ingrid Lee said...

How wonderful, thanks for sharing this story- very inspiring for me as a modern professional porcelain times have changed