Decalcomania & The Chinoiserie Taste

Antique vases
Decalcomania is the art of transferring pictures or printed engravings onto pottery,  porcelain or glass. In the case of a glass vase, artisans paint decorative paper cutouts (colour-printed) with a layer of protective varnish, apply them to the glass surface inside and finish with a hand-coloured wash within. 


Eugenie's chinese museum
Le Monde(1863) Princess Eugenie’s Chinese Museum at Fontainebleau
Craftsmen developed a similar technique in the mid-18th century. Ink or paint is spread onto a surface and covered with paper, glass or aluminium foil (before the ink dries).  This transfers an image, which can be coloured. Simon François Ravenet (1706-  circa 1764), an early champion of the technique, called this process decalquer (meaning ‘to trace’ in English). But the first known use of the word, decalcomania, is found in Eleanor’s Victory – Eleanor  Braddon’s English novel of 1863. Two years later, the word reappears in an American trade publication for the Massachusetts  Charitable Mechanics Association.
This charming art form is similar to découpage a fashionable craze which swept Europe in the 18th century. Paper scraps are glued to the outside surface,  sealed with multiple layers of varnish, and then sanded down to a glossy, polished finish. Society ladies applied découpage cutouts to furniture, hat-boxes, tea caddies and fire screens.

Decalcomania vase

Decalcomania is a suitable medium for chinoiserie decoration. The ‘chinoiserie’  style is a European take on the Far East: an exotic mishmash of imagined Chinese,  Japanese and Indian motifs: for the mysterious Orient has always held a  romantic appeal. Trade with the East developed in the late 17th century and became fully established in the 18th. The  Canton System allowed the various  European East India Companies access to  Chinese markets in a designated area focused on the Southern Chinese port of  Canton. And with the increased influx of  Chinese goods, European craftsmen began to imitate supposedly Oriental styles. 

Chinese pagodas, fabulous birds, mythical beasts, exotic flowers, insects and plants took pride of place in the new and fashionable chinoiserie style. 

Yellow ground decalcomania vase and cover

A second chinoiserie wave swept France in the mid-19th century. Interestingly, the description ‘chinoiserie’ first appears in  Balzac‘s novel, L’Interdiction in 1836. Under the Second Empire of Napoleon III  (1852-1870), a vogue for all things Chinese takes hold. Obsessed with Marie Antoinette and the late 18th century Louis XVI style,  the Empress Eugenie undoubted leader of the beau-monde- fell under the spell of the chinoiserie taste. Le Monde’s popular print of the time (1863) shows Eugenie’s new  Chinese Museum at Fontainebleau,  including a substantial collection of Chinese vases on display. And where the Empress led, fashionable Europe followed. 


Today, decalcomania vases are sought after by collectors, connoisseurs and interior designers. The late American interior decorator, Mario Buatta, was a fan. Timothy Langston Fine Art and Antiques is delighted to offer a selection of fine decalcomania vases for sale. Produced in France during the mid-19th century, they feature a  charming interpretation of Chinese life:  decorated with exotic flowers, foliage,  fabulous birds and butterflies in flight – the delicate greens, yellows and pinks offset against background washes in subtle off-white: a sophisticated addition to an elegant interior. 

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