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China painting swept across America in the late nineteenth century as one of the most prevalent decorative pottery techniques, especially among young women. Considered a respectable form of work and creative outlet for women, china painting incorporated the element of hand craft that helped elevate standards of design during a period of mass production and industrialism. The technique of china painting could be done conveniently at home or in large pottery settings. Also known as “mineral painting,” after its materials, a china painter used enamels, low firing colors produced from various mineral-oxides, as a “painting” medium on pre-fired porcelain white porcelain, also known as blanks. These blank porcelain pieces were often imported from European countries, France and Germany in particular, and came in a variety of dinner ware forms and vases. The china painting technique of decorating porcelain was popularized in America by the highly influential Englishman, Edward Lycett. Trained as a potter in the English tradition at Spode pottery in Staffordshire, England, Lycett moved to America in 1861, where he almost immediately gained prestigious commissions for the White House and Tiffany & Co. His devotion to experimenting with materials and teaching pottery techniques across the country established Edward Lycett as the “pioneer of china painting in America” during his own lifetime. Ultimately, the creativity fostered by the china painting movement and the influence of Edward Lycett launched the American ceramic industry towards new and exciting avenues of decorative pottery.
While women china decorators were often referred to as “amateurs” with the men as the professionals in the field, the Healey sisters became an exception. Mary and Emily Healey were born into a wealthy family in Cumberland, Maryland and worked as china decorators, and likely teachers of china painting, from 1892 to the 1920s. Their interest in china painting began when they moved to Washington, D.C. where the arts were widely appreciated and supported. China painting was seen as genteel occupation for women, with its connection to domesticity while fulfilling the Victorian aesthetic of a variety and quantity of objects on display in the home. Most women who practiced china painting viewed it mainly as a leisurely activity, especially after the increased affluence after the Civil War. The Healey sisters, however, used china painting as means to support themselves. Differentiating themselves from the conventional naturalistic china painted scenes, the sisters became known for covering their porcelain blanks entirely with gold. “Cryso-Ceramics” as they were called, cryso meaning gold, was a process they developed using a mixture of gold and uranium that fired in a low-temperature kiln. Although less known today, the Healey sisters were a wide success during their lifetime. Not only were they able to sell their china painting locally through catalog orders and commissions, but they also received two Premium awards at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and became an international sensation – reaching acclaim as far as Denmark.
This unique pitcher, painted with brilliant gold by the Healey sisters, was a special commission by Ellen Knight Bradford, a regular Healey customer located in Washington, D.C. Made for the occasion of Ms. Bradford’s aunt and uncle’s “golden” wedding anniversary, the Healey sisters hand painted a poem composed by Ms. Bradford along the spiraling sides of the porcelain pitcher body.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
c. 1894-1900
place made
France: Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Limoges
Physical Description
"gold" (overall color)
white (overall color)
ceramic, porcelain, hard-paste (overall material)
gilt (overall production method/technique)
overall: 7 1/2 in x 3 3/4 in x 5 1/2 in x 6 1/2 in; 19.05 cm x 9.525 cm x 13.97 cm x 16.51 cm
overall: 7 7/16 in x 6 7/16 in x 4 1/16 in; 18.89125 cm x 16.35125 cm x 10.31875 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Miss Faith Bradford
See more items in
Cultural and Community Life: Ceramics and Glass
Domestic Furnishings
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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