Asian

Chinese Porcelain Vase

Artist: Once Known
Culture/People: Chien Lung
Place: China
Media:  Porcelain, flambe-glaze
Dims: 9.25 x 6 x 6 in. (23.495 x 15.24 x 15.24 cm)
Date: 1736-1795
RTC No.: AS0010
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011

Description

Porcelain: A Unique Beauty that Captivated the World

Ceramic making is one of our oldest forms of artistry. This ancient craft allowed people to transport, cook, and store food. It also has been used for spiritual and artistic expression. The Venus of Dolní Věstonice, a female figurine discovered in a Paleolithic site in the Czech Republic, dated circa 28,0000 BCE, is the oldest known ceramic object.

The Chinese have an impressive ceramic heritage. Having long mastered the art of turning clay into pottery, when they developed porcelain around 600 CE, they took their art to a new level, creating a thriving industry and a product with worldwide demand. They discovered that adding kaolin to clay and firing it at extremely high temperatures, transformed into a smooth, hard, and sometimes translucent material. In tandem with the perfection of porcelain was the formulation of glaze components. Techniques for high-fired glazes evolved through different periods and kilns, from monochromes to amazing motifs with distinct palettes. Workshops sprung up all over China; the most important was the Imperial Kiln in the city of Jingdezhen, which is still known as the porcelain capital of the world and has been producing exquisite wares for more than a thousand years.

Production and appreciation for porcelain vessels grew alongside the tea-drinking cultures during the Tang Dynasty. Tea bowls were exported to surrounding countries. As tea culture evolved, poetic references would be made to the drink and the vessels used to savor it. Items could be described as “Of a color approaching the blue of the sky between the clouds after rain” or White like jade, bright as a mirror, thin as paper, sounds like a chime.” Porcelain became the stuff of myths. As an example, there is the story of an artist who had superhuman skills and painted butterflies on a bowl. When the bowl was filled with water, the painted butterflies seemed to float on the surface and flutter as if alive.
A graceful, long-necked, flambé vase in the Coe Center collection is part of this venerable tradition. The glaze of this two-toned vase from the Chien Lung period (1736-1795) is known as flambé or transmutation glaze. These kiln transmutations occur when metallic and mineral elements in the glaze transform into blue, reddish, and purple colors. The process of firing clay and turning it into ceramics was thought to be influenced by the supernatural, and early color transmutations, or Yao Bian, were considered to be unlucky and destroyed. During the Chien Lung period, in an effort to recreate earlier ceramics from the Song Dynasty, the process was understood, and its unique, unpredictable beauty became a source of fascination.

Porcelain was one of the goods traded along the Silk Road to other Asian countries and Africa. Marco Polo is credited with bringing porcelain to Europe in the fourteenth century when the upper classes developed such an appetite for it that it became known as “white gold.” Rulers engaged alchemists, who strived to discover the clay formula for hundreds of years. During this period, Europeans satisfied their craze for porcelain by commissioning pieces from China, creating a reciprocal cultural exchange.

In 1707, the German Johann Böttger learned the technique of creating porcelain and laid the foundations for the Meissen porcelain factory. Other countries followed, establishing factories with traditions we recognize today, such as Sévres, Wedgewood, and Royal Copenhagen. Access to porcelain spread in the Western world and was no longer exclusive to royalty but remained a hallmark of a genteel lifestyle.

Porcelain is a noble material with an enduring presence in our lives. It continues to inspire art, and with its myriad practical uses, we continue to enjoy this “dance between clay and fire.”

—Bridget Rawles, 2024

Sources: 

“A Brief History of Chinese Ceramics”, Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, Accessed November 22, 2023, https://www.moco.or.jp/en/intro/history_c/china.php

Hobson Robert L. “Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, Volume One”,  London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne, Cassell and Company Ltd., 1915 https://www.gutenberg.org/files/67970/67970-h/67970-h.htm#CHAPTER_VI

Hobson, Robert L. “Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, Volume Two”,  London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne, Cassell and Company Ltd., 1915  https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/68762/pg68762-images.html

“What is Ceramics?”, Sévres Museum, Sévres Manufacture et Musée Nationaux, Accessed November 22, 2023, https://www.sevresciteceramique.fr/en/musee/what-is-ceramics.html

Communications Department of the Tretyakov Gallery, “White Gold: The Tradition and Modernity of Chinese Porcelain”, The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine, Issue #2 2007, Accessed November 22, 2023, https://www.tretyakovgallerymagazine.com/articles/2-2007-15/white-gold-tradition-and-modernity-chinese-porcelain

Norman, Jeremy. “The Venus of Dolní Vestonice, the Oldest Known Ceramic Figurine.” Jeremy Norman’s History of Information.com. Accessed November 20, 2023. https://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?entryid=2493

UNESCO. “Imperial Kiln Sites of Jingdezhen” UNESCO. Accessed November 20, 2023. https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/6265/ 
Baoping,  Li. “Tea Drinking and Ceramic Tea Bowls An overview through dynastic history”  Accessed November 22, 2023. China Heritage Quarterly, No. 29, March 2012. http://www.chinaheritagequarterly.org/features.php?searchterm=029_li.inc&issue=029 

 Nilsson, Jan-Erik.. Accessed November 20, 2023.  https://gotheborg.com/glossary/flambe.shtml 

 Dazzle Deer. Accessed November 20, 2023. https://www.dazzle-deer.com/single-post/2017/08/29/fambe-%E7%AA%91%E5%8F%98

 Hodgson, Mrs. Willoughby, “Single Coloured Glazes” in How to Identify Old Chinese Porcelain, pg. #33, Chicago, A.C.McClurg & Co., 1907 https://library2.um.edu.mo/ebooks/b35946994.pdf

 chinaculture.org. “Blue-White Porcelain & Jengdezhen, Accessed November 22, 2023, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/life/2007-07/11/content_11569985.htm

China Daily, “Living Heritage: Porcelain. Updated August 28, 2023. https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202308/28/WS64ec0295a31035260b81e8cc.html

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