Works of porcelain are distinguished by their shared purpose. Equally functional and decorative, they enable artists to elevate quotidian items such as plates, vases and plaques into works of art. Though the practice originated in Shang Dynasty China (1600-1046 BC), porcelain spread rapidly throughout the following centuries, and was widely practiced in the Middle East, Russia and Europe.
The most accomplished works of porcelain display the same level of precision and skill one would expect from a fine painting. Indeed, porcelain vases and plates provide ideal surfaces for a vast array of landscapes, portraits and narrative scenes to be painted by hand. The production of porcelain became increasingly industrialised in the nineteenth century, which, combined with a growing consumer market, saw porcelain become one of the most popular art forms in Russia and Europe. It would be difficult to argue that porcelain objects reflected the boldest or most experimental developments in the history of art. However they reflected, in a highly sophisticated manner, the artistic styles of their age.
Robust yet delicate, porcelain was particularly well suited to commemorative and celebratory objects. Established in St Petersburg in 1744 under the decree of the Empress Elizabeth, the Imperial Porcelain Factory produced a number of highly collectible plates and other porcelain, developing a reputation as one of the most accomplished porcelain producers in the world. Scenes recording Russia’s triumph in the 1812 Patriotic War against Napoleon were particularly popular among the emerging middle classes. These plates reflected the growth of national pride on the one hand, and the developments in Realist and Genre painting on the other. Functional yet visually appealing, porcelain harnessed the decorative potential of military uniforms, trophies, and portraiture.
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