Paintings on Porcelain

Painted portrait and genre scenes on KPM porcelain plaques have charmed collectors with their rich colors and smooth enameled images since the 18th century. Founded in 1761 by Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky when he bought out the Wegely factory, the Berlin Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur, or KPM, hired experienced artists and craftsmen from the Meissen porcelain company as they attempted to improve the porcelain quality. Facing financial troubles, Gotzkowsky sold the company to Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, in 1763, giving the company protection from competition and free fuel. Frederick’s death in 1786 brought forth another new beginning under the direction of the Royal Porcelain Factory Commission and chairman Friedrich Anton Baron von Heinitz.

KPM’s porcelain in 1770 had a clean white color and hard quality. The hard-paste porcelain’s level surface made an ideal surface for the paintings. Top skilled artists were required for the various steps to create each plaque: molding, embossing, impressing, drying, firing and painting. The durability of the porcelain to survive multiple firing sessions in the kiln was necessary, because every color of overglaze enamel had its own firing temperature. The first firings began with the higher temperature paints, which adhered to the underglaze at around 750 degrees Celsius. Some plaques would take from twelve to fifteen separate firings due to the various pigments.

The artists mastered the technical nuance of painting on porcelain. If the enamel was too thick it would chip off, so they instead learned to use thin and small layers. Furthermore, the colors of the paints were indiscernible before firing, so the desired outcome was not known with certainty until the piece had been fired. Once the plaque was removed from the kiln, it could not be easily corrected.

In the first quarter of the 18th century, independent artists painted on porcelain blanks, or undecorated pieces, in their own homes or studios. The painters, known as Hausmalers, obtained blanks from Meissen and Vienna. Hand painted copies of well-known paintings were reproduced, including religious scenes by Old Masters. Artists spent time copying original paintings on panel or canvas in museums at the time. The rich, shiny glazes preserved their colors, and popular subjects include nude scenes, portraits of women and group genre scenes. Artists would also alter proportions or colors from original paintings. Wealthy members of society ordered copies of Old Master paintings from the artists in the later 18th century.

In the 19th century, collectors took an increasing commercial interest in paintings on porcelain. The highest quality of porcelain paintings included works made by artists at KPM, Sèvres, Vienna and Meissen. Artists continued to copy known works on canvas. In 2015, Doyle sold an impressive KPM porcelain plaque of Psyche after Wilhelm Kray, far surpassing the high estimate.

Various artists from different companies including Meissen were invited to work at the KPM factory. Blank plaques were also sold to other companies with the KPM marks. Plaques were deeply impressed with the scepter mark and letters “KPM” and sometimes, letters and numbers were also impressed, with the numbers often signifying the plaque’s size. While some artists signed their plaques, the signature or name of the artist was not as significant as the the colors and quality of the painting. Doyle auctioned a superb example of a copy of Roberto Ferrruzi’s Madonna of the Streets signed Wagner, which was a family of porcelain plaque painters who often signed their work.

-- Leigh Kendrick, Furniture & Decorative Arts



Further Reading:
Ostergard, Derek. Along the Royal Road: Berlin and Potsdam in KPM Porcelain and Painting 1815-1948. New York, NY: Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, 1993.
Shakrovski, Sean, and Vera Rininberg. KPM Plaques: Gaining an Insight Into the Art of Painting on Porcelain. Santa Clara, CA: FBP, 2005.

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