Monday, June 27, 2016

Art on a Plate

QUESTION: Recently, I purchased a beautiful large plate with what looks like a hand-painted picture on it. The mark on the back says “Limoges, France.” I don’t know how old the plate is or anything about this company. Can you help me?

ANSWER: What you purchased is called a charger. It’s actually the large plate used as the base plate for elegant French dining service. In this type of service, the space in front of each person is never supposed to be without a plate. In the beginning and in between courses, a servant would place a charger—a large ornately decorated plate—in front of each guest. Factories in the town of Limoges, France made chargers like the one you bought, marked as yours is, from 1891 to 1914.

Limoges is the center of hard paste porcelain. It is to France as Stoke-on-Trent is to England—the center of the ceramic industry. The town of Limoges is about 200 miles southwest of Paris and owes its prominence in the field of hard paste porcelain production to the abundance of natural resources. The soil in the area is rich in deposits of kaolin and feldspar, the essential ingredients for hard paste porcelain. The region also has forests to supply necessary fuel for the kilns and rivers to provide transportation for the finished goods.

Limoges’ golden age extended from the mid to the late 19th century. Production became industrialized, and manufacturers introduced mass-production techniques and new methods of decoration. Makers exported about 75 percent of their wares, the largest percentage to the U.S. In 1900, 10,000 barrels of decorated and blank porcelain were shipped from the Limoges factories to the U.S. The number of companies making it increased from 32 in the late 19th century to 48 in the 1920s.

Paintings on porcelains have been popular from the middle of the 18th century to the present. Chargers present an excellent background for ceramic painters to off their skills. Porcelain is more difficult to work on than canvas with oils because ceramic paints, which are basically oxides of various metals, don’t attain their final color until they’re fired at the correct temperature. Many ceramic colors have to be fired at different temperatures and will fuse out if heated above that temperature. It’s necessary for ceramic artists to apply and then fire the high-temperature colors first and then work down in stages to the low-fire ones.

The advantages of painting on a porcelain charger is the surface is so flat and smooth that artists can achieve extremely detailed results. Once fired, the colors are permanent. A porcelain charger painted in 1854 will look exactly the same today. Oil painting tends to darken with age, and watercolors fade.

While exquisite examples of paintings on porcelain have been made by top European porcelain companies, such as Berlin, Vienna, Meissen and Sevres, and many are quite expensive, Limoges chargers are affordable and readily available.

With the tremendous amount of porcelain produced, the market couldn't absorb all the wares. World War I and the economic depressions of the 1920s and 1930s forced many older companies out of business. With revitalization after World War II, many of the factories in Limoges continued to produce decorated chargers and do so even today.

Figural themes, both portrait and allegorical, as well as scenic decor are less common subjects on Limoges porcelain and are favorites of collectors. Portrait ware was popular during the mid 19"' century. Male subjects included important historical figures, such as Napoleons and Louis KW. Most portraits featured beautiful women, however, ranging from the French Empress Josephine to unknown Victorian women. Some of the most highly prized Limoges decorated chargers` are those having Art Nouveau-style ladies with grape clusters in their flowing heir and elaborate gowns. Sometimes a sleek tiger or greyhound dog completed the portrait. Each one was truly a work of art.

A Limoges charger that carries a decorator's mark and additionally an artist's signature is the most desirable. Next in demand are those hand painted but without an artist’s signature.

NOTE: I'm taking a week off from my blog for July 4. Have a patriotic Fourth of July! My blog will be back the week after next.

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