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Cool Things - Handpainted Porcelain

Porcelain hand-painted by Gertrude Armantrout

These exceptional pieces of porcelain were painted by a Topeka artist.

"An art made by the hands of the people to please the hearts of people."--Oscar Wilde, Art and the Handicraftsman, 1908

Porcelain painting was a popular pursuit for women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a sophisticated hobby for middle and upper class women, a respectable occupation for women who needed to work out of economic necessity, and a creative outlet for women artists, who in general did not receive the same professional status as their male counterparts.

The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, the growing acceptance of the Arts & Crafts and Aesthetic movements, and publications such as Keramic Studio, published in 1899, helped to bring the interest in porcelain painting to its zenith. Publications, local studios, and supply companies provided everything the porcelain painter needed, including instruction.

Porcelain Was Her Medium

Gertrude Anderson Armantrout, artist of the pieces shown here, was born on October 11, 1891 in Topeka. She studied home economics at Kansas State College and arts at Washburn College. While at Washburn, Armantrout developed her skill in porcelain painting, etching, and lithography. She painted porcelain from approximately 1906 until her death in 1964, most prolifically from 1914 to 1936. She married Paul Lawrence Armantrout in 1918 or 1919. The couple had two children, William J., born in 1920 and Marjorie Jean, born in 1921. 

Armantrout used one of the more common processes for painting porcelain. She began with a blank on which she sketched her basic design. Blanks are undecorated porcelain forms in either glazed or bisque state (fired, but un-glazed). Blanks were purchased from catalogs, department stores, local studios, or directly from the companies producing them. At the height of the porcelain-painting craze, most china companies (such as Lenox) offered full lines of blanks.

Close-up of punch bowl painted by Gertrude Armantrout

Armantrout applied overglaze paints in several steps. These are mineral colors, derived from metallic salts. First offered in powder form to be mixed with oil, these paints were later available in pre-mixed tubes. Overglaze paints are translucent and require numerous firings to build up the desired color effect. She also used enamel paste (a thick glaze) to give a three-dimensional effect. Black pen work outlined many of her designs.

On many of her pieces, Armantrout applied Roman gold before the last firing. Roman gold or Burnished gold was available in paste or liquid and would be burnished (polished) using a glass brush, an agate, or fine white sand to bring out a soft sheen.

Changing Fashions

The popularity of hand-painted porcelain began to wane by the 1930s. Many factors contributed to its demise, but certainly the Great Depression and decorating trends were factors.

The Great Depression put the United States into economic turmoil, driving increasing numbers of women into the workforce. Porcelain painting was perhaps seen as an unnecessary extravagance. Most effectively, decorating trends and the changing aesthetic of the home contributed to the decline of porcelain painting. Modern homes ran on efficiency with modern appliances and streamlined design. Sleek and uncluttered were the new mantras of the home decorator.

Jardiniere painted by Gertrude ArmantroutPorcelain painting probably would have disappeared if not for a renewed interest beginning in the 1950s. China Decorator magazine was founded by Nettie Pillet in 1956, and is still published today. Two organizations of note developed in the 1960s, the International Porcelain Artists and Teachers, Inc. started in Texas in 1962 and the World Organization of China Painters headquartered in Oklahoma City, chartered in 1967. These organizations, including Porcelain Painters International, bring modern porcelain artists together to continue to revive the art.

Today porcelain painting clubs can be found across the United States and around the world. These clubs continue the mission of past studios:  to provide a place to learn technique, share and create ideas, and to produce hand-painted porcelain.

Marjorie Jean Davis, Armantrout's daughter,  bequeathed approximately 200 pieces of her mother's work to the Kansas Museum of History in 2002.

View other images of Gertrude Anderson Armantrout's porcelain, including other sides of the jardiniere pictured above:

Entry: Cool Things - Handpainted Porcelain

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: January 2004

Date Modified: July 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.