Women Depicted in the Decorative Arts

By Karen Parr-Moody


Women have long been depicted in the decorative arts to lovely effect. So pleasing to the eye is a Sèvres portrait plate of a French duchess, a René Lalique “Chrysis” hood ornament or even a Wedgwood teapot featuring Queen Elizabeth II’s profile.


The Old Paris portrait vase in the photo, right, dates to the 1890s, and has brass mounts and gilt moriage detailing ($65; T-134). Portrait plates and vases were crafted of fine porcelain by numerous makers, including Sèvres, Limoges and Royal Vienna Porcelain, mostly during the latter half of the 19th century. Many feature the likenesses of women of nobility; some of these portraits are transfers, while others are completely hand-painted and still others are transfers with hand-painted accents. 


As with many of these portraits done on porcelain, this vase depicts a woman from earlier in history. In this case the hairstyle, diadem-style crown and dress are that of a woman from the First French Empire of 1804 to 1815. In fact, this woman’s attire is very much like that worn by Empress Josephine Bonaparte at her 1804 coronation and in various portraits (above left). In such portraits, Josephine wears her bodice cut in a low square with a small collar of lace rising from the shoulders and neck, evoking the lace collars of the 16th-century aristocracy. This vase’s portrait is also similar to other depictions of Josephine Bonaparte on porcelain plates, as seen in the close-up of this Austrian portrait plate (left). Only the blonde curls of the woman's portrait on the vase are off; the empress was a brunette.


During the time of Josephine Bonaparte’s reign with Napoleon, the newspapers and journals in France eagerly relayed news of her style to the rest of the world. Her neoclassical aesthetic ushered in what is now called an “empire” waist, in which loose, draping fabric falls from an under-bust seam. This style, created by Josephine’s couturier Louis-Hippolyte Leroy, was worn through the 1820s and included followers such as France’s Madame Récamier and England’s Lady Maria Hamilton.


Going back about 50 years in French history we come to this exquisite powder vessel for one’s dressing table (photo, right; $295 at GasLamp Too Booth T-107). It was made in the 19th-century of cut glass and sterling silver, but it includes a miniature portrait of a French lady in the style of the 1750s; she is painted behind the glass on faux ivory.


The woman in this portrait painting – with her powdered hair decorated by flowers and her classical bodice with a round neckline – echoes paintings from the mid-1700s of Madame du Pompadour, the legendary mistress of King Louis XV. In this famous painting by Francois Boucher, left, Madame du Pompadour’s hair is fashioned into graceful curls with a small bouquet of flowers pinned on the top. Such hairstyles were seen in other paintings of court ladies of the era.  


Dante Gabriel Rossetti was an English poet and painter whose muse was the flame-haired beauty Elizabeth Siddal, who became famous for sitting for many Pre-Raphaelite painters of the late 1800s (photo, left). Siddal inspired Rossetti to coin the term “Stunner” to describe her and other independent women from the 1860s to the 1890s who reacted to Queen Victoria’s child-woman role model. With her luxurious tresses tumbling down her neck, the Stunner defied convention. This lady would not be concealed by a bonnet. The Stunner’s depictions ranged from fair maiden to enigmatic siren, but her strong features – which hinted at Greco-Roman masculinity – exuded an air of strength.


This brings us to the tankard in the photo, right. It is a rare Royal Vienna Austria piece done in the Art Nouveau style that is highly gilded and includes hand-painted details ($185 at GasLamp Too Booth T-107). Made sometime between the late 1800s to early 1900s, it includes a portrait of a lady who, with her flowing auburn tresses, could have stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. As a bonus, there is a hand-painted satyr with curling horns on the spout.


This Jenny Lind cologne bottle in the photo, left, was produced from 1955 to 1965 by Fostoria Glass in milk glass colors of white, peach and opaque aqua ($95 at GasLamp Too Booth T-545). The bottle is covered with raised roses and scrolls and features a beautiful cameo centered in a beaded oval on both sides. The bottle is named after Jenny Lind, a famous Swedish opera singer who lived from 1820 to 1887.


What is it about women depicted in the decorative arts? My home is graced with them in various incarnations – a Parian ware bust of a First French Empire lady, several portrait plates of queens and one gorgeous hand-painted lamp featuring a 1930s beauty. There’s simply something about the female form that imbues a space with grace.

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