A lithophane (French: lithophanie) is an etched or molded artwork in very thin translucent porcelain or plastic that can be seen clearly only when back lit with a light source. It is a design or scene in intaglio that appears "en grisaille" (in gray) tones. Lithophane pictures have three-dimensional characteristics and change their appearance as the light source angle and brillance is changed. The picture types have a wide range varying from commemorative events to noteworthy people.

Lithophane when backlit

Many historians argue that the inspiration for the idea of a lithophane originally came from China nearly a thousand years ago in the Tang Dynasty. European lithophanes were first produced at the same time in France, Germany, Prussia, and England in the 1820s. Lithophanes by the hundreds of thousands were made in the middle of the eighteen hundreds by several European porcelain factories. It is a sophisticated form of art with many steps and is done by trained craftspeople. Lithophane pictures come in various formats from windows to fireplace screens. They are commonly noted in souvenir ornaments, beer steins, mug bottoms, and lamp shades.


A lithophane presents a three-dimensional image – completely different from two-dimensional engravings and daguerreotypes that are "flat". Lithophane images change characteristics depending on the light source behind them. Window lithophane panel scenes change throughout the day depending on the amount of sunlight. The varying light source is what makes lithophanes more interesting to the viewer than two-dimensional pictures.[1][2][3]

The word lithophane derives from Greek litho, which is from lithos, meaning 'stone, rock', and phainein meaning 'to cause to appear' or 'to cause to appear suddenly'. From this is derived a meaning for lithophane of 'light in stone' or to 'appear in stone' as the three-dimensional image appears suddenly when lit with a back light source.[1][2][3]


Lithophane in ambient light

European lithophanes were first produced nearly at the same time in France, Germany, Prussia, and England around the later part of the 1820s.[4][5] Many times historians credit Baron Paul de Bourgoing (1791–1864) with inventing the ombrant (pottery decorating) process of lithophanes in 1827 in France.[4][6] Robert Griffith Jones acquired Bourgoing's rights in 1828 and licensed out to English factories to make them.[4][6] The English factories sometimes used the name lithophane for specimens of ordinary ombrant.[4][6] Some say, however, it was Georg Friedrich Christoph (1781–1848) of Prussia that actually perfected the true lithophane process in 1828.[6] Others say the technique was developed in Berlin and other parts of Germany by such manufacturers as Berlin porcelain (Königlichen Porzellan-Manufaktur or Porzellanmanufactur).[4][5] This is why sometimes lithophanes are referred to as "Berlin transparencies."[4][6][7] There is a well known mark of Ad'T' on lithophanes from Rubles, near Melun in France. It is thought to be the mark of Baron A. de Tremblay; however, some scholars on the subject think he only made earthenware and not true lithophanes and the mark belongs to a yet unknown source.[4][6]

Many historians argue that the inspiration for the idea came originally from China nearly a thousand years before in the Tang Dynasty.[8] According to the scholar R. L. Hobson during the Ming Dynasty the Chinese produced bowls "as thin as paper" with secret decorations (an hua) in them.[8] According to W. Hodgson she describes some Chinese biscuit porcelains as looking like "little screens with landscapes in relief" which resemble white porcelain that is obtained in Switzerland.[8] Other potential precursors to the European lithophanes come from the Chinese Song Dynasty.[8] Qingbai wares had translucency with carved and molded designs of flowers, fish, and birds. Japanese lithophane tea sets are referred to as dragonware and were popular for GI trading in Japan during the occupation after World War II.[8]

In the early part of the 20th century many lithophane investigators were making connections between the European 18th and 19th century ceramics and the Chinese porcelains.[9] In France they used the term Blanc de Chine in the 18th century to designate a highly translucent Chinese porcelain,[9] now called Dehua porcelain. Porcelain factories in France, Germany and England mimicked the Chinese Blanc de Chine in the 17th and 18th centuries.[9] These same factories then started to make lithophanes in the early part of the 19th century.[9] The technical and aesthetic inspirations for European lithophanes can be seen coming from Chinese works; however, the exact relationship between the two remains elusive to this day.[9] However, there is no known lithophane plaque produced anywhere in China prior to 1800.[9]

Lithophanes were made by specialized European craftspeople beginning as an image carved in warm wax on a glass plate.[2][10] This was then backlit and carved.[10] Sometimes the carving table was near a window and had a mirror below the table to provide constant light for carving.[10] A modeler would duplicate the image on a flat wax plate carving relief and intaglio.[10][11] Where the wax was carved thinnest more would shine through.[10][11] Of course where the wax was carved thickest then there was less light shone through.[10][11]

A plaster gypsum mold was cast from the wax.[2] It was sometimes cast in metal for the production of multiple molds. The casts were removed from the molds and then fired to about 2300 degrees Fahrenheit. The porcelain would include around 66% kaolin, 30% feldspar and 4% soapstone. It turned out that up to about 60% of the porcelains would warp or crack in the kiln causing them to become useless. Finished lithophanes are somewhere between one sixteenth of an inch thin to almost a quarter inch (1.5 to 6mm) thick.[12]

Lithophanes were produced in Austria, Belgium, Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, and Wales in the 19th century.[13] Lithophanes by the hundreds of thousands were made in the middle of the eighteen hundreds by such firms as Wedgwood in England, Meissen porcelain in Dresden, and Belleek in Ireland.[13] Lithophanes were produced then in the United States as well, however not nearly as much as in Europe.[13] Popular subjects of lithophanes were religious themes, portraits, genre scenes, literature ideas such as stories from the Bible, and masterpieces.[11][13] Some lithophanes even commemorated events such as the opening of the Eiffel Tower in 1889.[14]

Lithophanes were in various formats from plaques to be hung in windows to candle shields.[15][16] They were also in fireplace screens, night lights, tea warmers, and match boxes.[14][15][16] Many were pieces of bottoms of beer steins, mugs and cups.[15][16] Some were souvenir ornaments of erotica images.[15][16] They were even in lanterns and lamps.[14][15][16] Rare miniature lithophanes are parts of doll house furnishings.[14] [15][16]

A Samuel Colt 1855 picture and its reproduced lithophane image

According to Henry Barnard, Samuel Colt's first biographer, Colt ordered and had installed on his new home ("Armsmear") in Hartford, Connecticut dozens of lithophanes he purchased in Berlin in 1855 and 1856.[17][18][19] Colt probably got the idea from the 1851 Great (Crystal Palace) Exhibition in London or the New York Great Exhibition of 1853 or in a Prussia visit in 1854.[17][18][19] Scenic views and portraits were for the public and private rooms of Colt's wife.[17][18][19] Inspirational panes were for the windows of Colt's upstairs bedroom.[17][18][19]

Lithophanes of humorous nature were put in the windows of Colt's billiard room of his new home.[17][18] One of particular interest was of the Battle of Trafalgar.[17][18][19] Others were of Stolzenfels Castle on the Rhine River and a view of Koblenz.[17][18][19] Barnard described the lithophanes as "a veritable art gallery."[17][18][19] A photograph of Armsmear taken between 1857 and 1861 shows over one hundred lithophanes.[17] A photograph of 1907 shows the lithophanes of Armsmear still in place.[17] Many of Colts surviving lithophanes are currently at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.[17]

Samuel Colt had 111 lithophanes made of his likeness from a photograph for wide distribution in 1855.[17][18][19] In this lithophane portrait he is sitting at a small desk holding a Belt Pistol in his right hand and has a directional compass in his left hand.[17][18][19] One of these he sent to Senator Thomas J. Rusk who responded in a letter of 3 January 1856 when he received it that the likeness was excellent.[17][18][19]

Modern lithophanesEdit

More recently lithophanes have been made with the use of CNC machines and 3D printing, starting with the shades of a black and white photograph used to generate a heightmap surface, which is then used to mill or print a solid object from a semi-translucent material.[20][21][22]




  1. ^ a b Blair 2018, p. webpage.
  2. ^ a b c d Savage 1974, p. 180.
  3. ^ a b Carney 2008, pp. 4–9.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Savage 1974, p. 181.
  5. ^ a b Carney 2008, pp. 10–14.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Carney 2008, pp. 16–21.
  7. ^ Sandon 1997, pp. 96.
  8. ^ a b c d e Carney 2008, pp. 23–27.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Carney 2008, pp. 30–37.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Klimaszewski, Nicolai, Ceramics Monthly, "Hand-Carving Lithophanes", October 2007, Volume 55, Issue 8.
  11. ^ a b c d Savage 1974, p. 180-181.
  12. ^ Carney 2008, pp. 43–47.
  13. ^ a b c d Lise, pp. 82, 83, 88, 136, 168-169
  14. ^ a b c d Carney 2008, pp. 50–54.
  15. ^ a b c d e f Great Exhibition 1852, p. 1150
  16. ^ a b c d e f New-York Exhibition 1853, p. 142
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Samuel Colt's porcelain transparencies - Magazine Antiques, April, 2006, 169 no. 4, pp. 106-115
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k The Home, The Arm, and the Armory of Samuel Colt, a Memorial by Barnard, Henry, New York 1866
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Houze, p. 230-238
  20. ^ "Fabrication of personalized lithophane via additive manufacturing". Sustainable Operations and Computers. Elsevier B.V. 3: 17–21. 2022. doi:10.1016/j.susoc.2021.09.001. S2CID 240584496. Retrieved August 20, 2022.
  21. ^ Tim (April 12, 2022). "Perfectly 3D Print All Types of Lithophanes and Add Colour". Core Electronics. Retrieved August 20, 2022.
  22. ^ "PhotoVCarve". Vectric Ltd Precision House. 2022. Retrieved August 20, 2022.



Additional references pertaining to Samuel Colts lithophanes are located at the Connecticut Historical SocietySamuel Colt papers, in particular box 7.

External linksEdit