The Natural World
The observation and classification of the natural world reached an unprecedented level of seriousness and scientific accuracy in early nineteenth-century Europe. This increasing interest in the observed world and its categorization was reflected in many of the decorative schemes chosen for porcelain. Flowers, birds, and landscapes—both exotic and familiar—depicted with exacting detail were considered not only aesthetically pleasing but also worthy subject matter.
Views of cities or landscapes are among the most familiar types of decoration on nineteenth-century European porcelain. Known as vedute, the Italian word for "views," these depictions of buildings, cityscapes, and countryside record the world with a degree of precision and accuracy that was unprecedented in porcelain painting. Often working from prints, the painters at the various porcelain factories depicted monuments, new buildings, and sweeping views of city skylines and rural landscapes that provide historically important and stunningly beautiful visual records of the time.
Important events such as marriages and royal visits as well as architectural interiors were viewed as appropriate subjects for the decoration of porcelain. The objects in this case all record historical occasions or places of special significance. Once depicted, an event was not only commemorated but was also imbued with particular importance.
Recalling Antiquity: Micromosaics
The micromosaic technique was strongly evocative of classical antiquity. Imitating the large-scale mosaics of Greek and Roman art, micromosaics were composed of tesserae, extremely small pieces of colored glass that were assembled to create decorative patterns or representational images. Micromosaic production flourished in Rome in the nineteenth century. Inspired by its popularity, porcelain painters developed a means of simulating its appearance. By painting a web of tiny lines suggesting the spaces between the tesserae, they evoked the slight irregularities of a true micromosaic with remarkable success.
Recalling Antiquity: Cameos
The prevailing Neoclassical style of the early nineteenth century not only employed classical motifs in all forms of art but also sought to emulate techniques associated with classical antiquity. Cameo carving was one of the most revered luxury arts of ancient Greece and Rome. Cameos, carved from numerous types of hardstones, often utilized variations in the stone's color to artistic effect. Profile portrait heads were a particularly popular subject for cameo carvers. Just as they had found a way to imitate the micromosaic technique in paint, the porcelain painters at Sèvres and Berlin became extremely adept at using enamel colors to simulate the physical properties of hardstone cameos.
Recalling Antiquity: Egypt
Motifs and images drawn from ancient Egypt became popular throughout Europe in the early nineteenth century due, in part, to Napoleon's Egyptian military campaigns of 1798–99. The publications that resulted from the French expeditions made Egyptian motifs highly fashionable as well as readily available to a wide public. Both the forms and decoration employed for porcelain reflected this interest in Egyptian art, and motifs as varied as pseudo-hieroglyphics, crocodiles, and sphinxes entered the European decorative vocabulary.