Defining Decorative Versus Fine Art 

Decorative vs Fine Art. L: Francois Boucher's portrait de Madame de Pompadour. R: Sevres Style French Bronze Antique Porcelain Vases. Sold for $325 USD via Hill Auction Gallery (Nov 2021). L: Francois Boucher's portrait de Madame de Pompadour. R: Sevres Style French Bronze Antique Porcelain Vases. Sold for $325 USD via Hill Auction Gallery (Nov 2021).

Decorative art. Fine art. What, exactly, is the difference? Both of these terms are liberally applied to work everywhere from the auction block to the gallery space, but it’s rare when they are defined for the viewer. If you are a collector who has wondered why these two categories exist and where one draws the line between them, this article is for you. 

Here we break down some key distinctions often noted when differentiating between decorative art and fine art. We start by illuminating the origins of “fine art” as a field and how it contributed to this categorical dichotomy. Then, we’ll offer some easy-to-remember pointers on differentiating decorative art and fine art you can use when on your next antique hunt. 

The Origins of Fine Art

Louise Bourgeois - Bronze Spider.

Louise Bourgeois – Bronze Spider. Sold for $3,040,000 USD
via Sotheby’s (Nov 2005).

Perhaps an initial response to this quest to differentiate between fine art and decorative art is: why distinguish them at all? At the end of the day, all of the work grouped in these categories is art, however, the desire to separate “fine art” from its brethren stems from an ongoing desire among painters and sculptors to define themselves as unique talents across history. Beginning in the early modern period, artists began to exalt their skills to set themselves above other professional craftspeople, like carpenters or blacksmiths. This pursuit set in motion an elevated perception of the artist that, in the seventeenth century, led French cardinal Jules Mazarin to create the first royal academy of art in Paris. 

As the years progressed, similar prestigious academies for training blossomed across the European continent, and in those hallowed halls hierarchies of art became entrenched. In this pursuit to promote “good art” as more modes of creative expression were coming into popularity, the eighteenth century witnessed the introduction of the term “fine art” to refer to the best of the painting and sculpture that these famed academies were producing. So central was this term that, in the 1860s, Mazarin’s royal academy took the name of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts). 

Decorative art and fine art are terms that are still embedded in the art world discourse, so much so that some pioneering artists used their work to challenge these definitions. Faith Ringgold’s Story Quilts series from the 1980s used the materials and techniques of quilting – a practice typically relegated to the decorative arts – for a fine art installation to comment on the importance of the tradition and to encourage viewers to reassess their definitions. At the same time, artists like Banksy, whose graffiti works defy traditional fine art definitions yet nevertheless appear at contemporary art auctions alongside major fine artists including  Pablo Picasso and Louise Bourgeois.

Key Differences Between Decorative Art and Fine Art

This blurring of boundaries recalls that there is no hard and fast distinction to be made between these creations. That said, generally speaking, some characteristics of decorative art and fine art can help to differentiate between them. These include:


Claude Monet - Le bassin aux nymphéas.

Claude Monet – Le bassin aux nymphéas. Sold for £40,921,248 GBP via Christie’s (June 2008).

Perhaps the most clear-cut means to divide decorative art from fine art is how the work functions. Fine art tends to be for display purposes only. Whether it is a framed oil painting by Claude Monet hung on a wall or an illuminated mobile sculptural  installation by Alexander Calder, fine art tends to be primarily for viewing. Decorative art, however, often incorporates a function. Hester Bateman silver, for example, rolled impeccable design into services designed for tea time, just as George Nelson’s bedroom sets paired the artfulness of mid-century modern aesthetics with the practical necessity of getting a good night’s sleep. 


One way  to differentiate between decorative art and fine art is the meaning held by the piece. Fine art is often described as art that seeks to tap into a particular aesthetic and elicit emotion from the viewer. Decorative art can share that aesthetic, but overall  it is not necessarily seeking an emotional response. For example, Jacques Louis David’s Death of Socrates might excite the viewer to the cusp of political revolt through the lens of grand historical narratives; a Chippendale dining set, though imbued with a similar Classical formality, might not prove so evocative. 


Tiffany stained glass windows.

Tiffany stained glass windows. Sold for $55,000 USD via Morphy Auctions (July 2020).

An artwork’s materials can also inform whether it is considered an example of decorative versus fine art. Fine art typically comprises works of sculpture and painting, as well as the many modes of work on paper from drawings to prints. Decorative art captures the remaining artistic media. Ceramic, glass, and textile pieces, including Tiffany lamps or Lalique vessels all fall into the category of decorative art. Similarly, furniture, made in materials ranging from organic (wood) to manufactured (plastic or acrylic) is also grouped within decorative art.


Another distinction often made between fine art and decorative art is that a work of fine art tends to be singular. Decorative art, however, tends to be created in multiples. For instance, Francois Boucher may have painted only one portrait of Madame de Pompadour; Sevres porcelain, though, the studio sponsored by Madame du Pompadour, created multiple sets of porcelain designs for full dinner services to decorative garnitures. This distinction is problematized when considering the arts of photography and printmaking, as both fields work in multiples yet also are typically grouped with the realm of fine arts. 

Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

Thanks to these parameters, there is a general belief that fine art tends to be of higher value than decorative art. Past auction results support this trend: the first night of the painting-centered  Paul G. Allen sale at Christie’s New York in November 2022 raked in more than $1.5 billion earned from 60 lots; that same month the “Exceptional Sale” at Christie’s Paris auction house featured 34 lots of spectacular examples of 17th- and 18th-century furniture, tapestries, and other decorative objects that reached a total sale value of $8.6 million. If we crunch these numbers, in the New York auction the average price per sold work was $2.5 million; in Paris, that average price was about a 10th that amount – roughly $250,000 per lot. Of course, these numbers are dependent on the trends in collecting and the different eras reflected as well, but on the surface this comparison reveals the general trend of higher prices for fine art than for decorative art. 

When it comes to value, though, in the end all that matters is if a work of art speaks to you on a personal level. We bring our expertise and experience to the auction block, which means that an oil on canvas painting by John Singer Sargent might speak to some, while an antique stained glass lamp by Louis Comfort Tiffany might speak to others. Decorative art might be made of different materials and serve a different role in our cultural history, but it is equally important as its fine art counterparts and tells equally fascinating stories.