An overview of blue and white Chinese porcelain for the budding collector that delves into the history and how to authenticate antique porcelains.
Think you’ve got a consuming passion for decorating with blue and white Chinese porcelain?
Take a look at these obsessive displays!
Don’t be confused by the perspective. You are looking up in to the vault of a pyramid ceiling where some 260 pieces of blue and white Chinese porcelain have been carefully hung and surrounded by gilt. This awe inspiring sight is from the De Santos Palace in Lisbon, now the French Embassy, and was laid out at the end of the 18th century.
Next the Porcelain Room at the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin houses thousands of blue and white Chinese & Japanese porcelains. A truly abundant display that signaled to all visitors just how far reaching Frederick I’s influence and diplomatic relations stretched. Gilt surrounds and mirrors amplify the effect.
Lastly, in case you think this obsessive display ended with the 18th century here is Whistler’s famous Peacock Room designed for shipping magnet Frederick R. Leyland. The room became an Aesthetic embodiment as the colors, paintings, and porcelains all culminated into one immersive art experience.
The amassing of blue and white porcelains from China has a long standing history in the West and Near East really since this ceramic’s inception in the Yuan Dynasty almost 700 years ago. The Chinese and foreigner alike have been mesmerized by its beauty and the naturalistic color combination of sky and cloud.
Particularly Europeans’ fascination and enchantment with Chinese blue and white porcelain cannot be separated from our history of exploration, conquest, and colonization of exotic lands. The evolution of blue and white porcelain design both in terms of shapes and surface decoration shows an absolutely fascinating amalgamation of cultural exchange, wealth, influence, and power. The wide ranging reach of Chinese blue and white is astounding, touching everyone from the Mongols to the Persians, the French to the Mexicans, and the Egyptians to the Syrians.
It’s hard to imagine another commercial product that has had such wide reach or impact on art!
Want the cliff notes version of my Collector's Notes? Read this: The 3 Things You Should Know About Chinese Blue & White
Shop the Cobalt Collection here on P&P's Curio Collected!
History of Blue and White Chinese Porcelain
With the introduction of cobalt blue from Persia, Chinese potters developed the technique of painting a white porcelain body with designs in cobalt and glazing over top a clear coating that fired at high temperatures, ensuring a cohesive ceramic with extensive longevity.
Scholars agree that although earlier experiments with cobalt in China and Persian pottery do exist the Yaun dynasty’s technical developments and skilled decoration were truly an innovation that came to surpass all other efforts.
Porcelain - Chinese use the word ci to mean either porcelain or stoneware, not distinguishing between the two. In the West, porcelain usually refers to high-fired (about 2400ºF) white ceramics made from kaolin, whose bodies are translucent, vitreous, and make a ringing sound when struck.
The cobalt oxide (zaffre) used to paint the bodies of these porcelains turns from black to blue when fired and is painted by brush under the glaze. A resulting range of blues occurs depending on the impurities present in the ore, and different eras saw different appreciations for certain blue hues and ability to produce these hues based on access to Persian cobalt or other Chinese sources. Hence why we see a softer, pale blue from the Chenghua (1465-1487) to the Zhengde (1506-1521) periods and a purplish-blue in the Xuande (1426–1435). To learn more about the varieties in cobalt read this.
Production of Blue and White
Production of blue and white porcelain centered in South China in Jingdezhen (Ching-Tê-Chên) and became a highly developed process with division of labor between those who:
- prepared the basic clays into a paste
- created the saggars (containers for firing)
- moulded the pieces
- decorated the surfaces
In fact, according to one historical observer, Jesuit priest Père François Xavier d’Entrecolles, a single jar may have been touched by over 70 different craftsmen, and the painting done in stages by different hands. For more on production read this.
By 1540 an estimated 10,000 people were actively involved in the production of ceramics. The kilns at Jingdezhen were either private or imperial with the best artisans appointed or forced to serve in the Imperial workshops. Positions were hereditary and thus whole families for generations worked in the potting industry.
It varied emperor to emperor, but most craftsmen had to spend some part of their year laboring for the emperor in a corvée system or pay heavy taxes. Most of the private workshops made the porcelains for the domestic and export markets. Orders from the Imperial court were large and as many as 100,000 pieces were created for the Ming court annually.
Global Trade in Blue and White
At first trade in blue and white Chinese porcelain centered along the Silk Road and with the Near East and Southeast Asia. But by the early 16th century, Portugal made direct contact with China and began participating in the silk, tea, silver, porcelain, and pepper trade. King Manuel I of Portugal is credited with stimulating the European taste for blue and white when he offered the porcelains as diplomatic gifts to other European courts. While blue and white had been actually used in China and the Near East, upon reaching Europe its beauty and exoticism was so admired it quickly reached object d’art status.
In the 17th century the Dutch, particularly through the Dutch East Indian Company (Verenigde Oostindische Companie) came to dominate European trade with China. Porcelain grew in status and value even surpassing gold at one point, and spurring a race to reproduce the vitreous luminous ceramic body. Not until the 1709 did a German alchemist, Johann Fredrich Böttger, succeed, leading to the foundation of a porcelain industry at Meissen.
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Understanding Chinese Ceramics
Collectors and historians date and discuss Chinese porcelain in relation to the dynasty it was produced in and when possible the emperor it was produced under as well as the type of decoration, which is also called the family (blue and white, celadon, wucai, etc.). There are stylistic differences and developments that affect the colors used, the shapes of the vessels, and the motifs used in decoration as porcelain production was impacted by the different governing dynasties and interaction with the Near East and West.
The three main dynasties to concern yourself with in regards to blue and white:
For a full listing of dynasties and emperors head here.
Another important point to understand is that Chinese porcelain falls within 3 distinct groupings, particularly after the Imperial kilns were set up in Jingdezhen during the Yuan dynasty:
- Porcelain made for the Imperial court (Guanyao)
- Porcelain made for the Chinese people (Minyao)
- Porcelain made for the export market (the West, the Near East, Japan, and South East Asia)
The difference in these 3 types is found in the shapes of the porcelain bodies and the decoration. Porcelain made for the domestic market (imperial or people) was made in the “Chinese taste” and that made to export was made with the stylistic tastes of that culture in mind as best understood by the Chinese potters.
Imperial porcelain is almost always marked with a 4 or 6 character period mark/reign mark, while export porcelain is usually not marked (except when we get to 1892 and “made…” in marks are required to certain Western markets). Imperial Ming porcelain is the crème de la crème of blue and white and it commands 5 figures and up. Since it was made for the emperor and his court, these porcelain wares are extremely refined and of high quality, so you should not see any firing flaws or kiln grit.
Flaws were more acceptable on minyao or export pieces. Peoples ware is much more common and available at more affordable prices as is export porcelain.
Consequently, pieces with fake Imperial marks are common and have been produced according to some scholars from day one, so you could very well have a vase created during the Ming period but with a fake Imperial mark, and many pieces were made by Chinese potters in homage to periods past, which may have a retrospective mark.
It is very difficult to date Chinese porcelains only by their marks!