Page Last Updated: Wednesday, 04 November 2015 13:35 EDT, 1979, 2007, 2008, 2010

Oriental Porcelains

by Dean S. Hartley, Jr.

from Profile of Ouachita, September/October 1979, Volume 2 No. 3

For years, it has been a sign of great artistic appreciation to display a "Ming Vase" for visitors to see. Possession of a representative example of the porcelain art of the Chinese Ming period confirmed that the owner recognized true artistic excellence. We have, in our pride and ignorance, failed to recognize that much of our artistic heritage has come to us from the Orient. After all, the voyages of Marco Polo in the thirteenth century were for the specific purpose of bringing to Renaissance Europe the finer items of Cathay. The voyages of Columbus were designed to find a shorter, more easily accessible route to the source of those treasures.

A thousand years before Marco Polo went to China, the Chinese of the Six Dynasties period were producing glazed porcelainous ceramic vessels for household use and for decorative purposes, along with ceramic figures for burial purposes. In the T'ang Dynasty (618-909 AD), this art had developed to the stage where fabulously intricate ceramic vessels and figures of men and animals were produced and decorated with glazes of many colors. Many of these have survived and may be seen in museums and private collections - some here in Monroe, Louisiana. Toward the end of the T'ang Dynasty or early in the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD), true porcelain was manufactured in China, producing the rich and magnificent green celadons, the blue chun ware with lavender splashes, the fine white Ting ware and the delicate blue-white Ching-Pai.

At the same time, Korea was following suit with celadon Koryu ware and Japan was producing the three-color glazes of Nara ware. Skilled potters either went to China to learn or Chinese potters were lured to the other countries to demonstrate their skills.

In the Yuan period (1279-1368 AD), the use of cobalt under a clear white glaze signaled the development of the justly famous blue and white wares. When the Mongol emperors were ousted by native Chinese in 1368 AD, the Great Ming period began. It was during the Ming period that the Chinese potters further perfected their porcelain and introduced the over-glaze enamel colors of red, yellow, green, and purple and decorated their bowls and vases in a riot of brilliant colors and designs.

During the latter part of the Ming period, the Japanese, following the pattern set centuries before, continued to "steal" secrets of potting, glazing and enameling. The potters brought back to Japan the skills that the Koreans had perfected at home and in China and produced a truly Japanese array of porcelains. Depending upon the fineness of the potting, decoration and the kilns where they were made, we have that prototypical Japanese ware called Imari.

The Europeans had continued to search for the products of the Far East and had come to Japan in 1542 to establish trading and missionary stations. The Imari wares, which were Japanese versions of Ming wares, became so popular in Europe that the Chinese in turn copied the copies of their own work for the export trade. But the Japanese may have had the last laugh, because, having found just the right type of clay, three separate kilns began to make what may be the finest porcelains known. One was the kiln which produced Nabeshima wares of the finest clay, the clearest white glazes and magnificent overglaze enamel and underglaze designs. Another kiln produced Hirado ware - made solely for use by the provincial lord. Hirado ware is primarily the most delicate of the blue and white porcelains. Finally, the Kakiemon family produced a purely Japanese style of brilliant but restrained decorations of sapphire blue, delicate green, and persimmon red (the "Kaki" of Kakiemon). The Nabeshima Kakiemon wares were exported in small amounts, but not the Hirado ware. The Kakiemon became the pattern and inspiration which led Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, to imprison one Johannes Bottger, a European potter of great skill, until he learned to make porcelain. This incident occurred in the seventeenth century, hundreds of years after porcelain was first made in China. Bottger did succeed and it is from that accomplishment that the great European porcelains (which we call "China") derived as the Meissens and other porcelains of that quality.

Japanese Hirado White Ware

In the meantime, the Chinese had moved into the Ch'ing Dynasty and had further refined the preparation of clay, the control of glazes and the precision of potting to its ultimate. The monochrome glaze of blues, reds, blacks, pale blue-white and the flambre colors - all further developed the unbelievable array of magnificent shape, design and color available to us in Oriental ceramics. During this period, a Jesuit priest by the name of Giuseppe Castiglione, who took the Chinese name of Lang Shih Ning, was an advisor at the court of the Ch'ien Lung emperor and decorated many exceptionally fine porcelain items in a combination of European and Chinese style - items much sought after now by both Oriental and Western collectors. Also, the famous Famille Rose (or Rose Medallion) group of ceramics was perfected and are greatly prized by Western collectors.

Finally, in Japan, a group of potters on the western side of the main island of Honshu, in Kaga province, had developed a style of their own, which is familiar to us as Kutani ware. Later on toward the beginning of the nineteenth century, another popular ware with lavish decorations in gold and colors was produced. We know it (not quite correctly) as "Old Satsuma," and at its best it is truly magnificent.

A word of warning is appropriate. With modern technology and machinery to work with clay and glazes, it is fairly easy to make copies of the famous wares of the centuries. As a matter of fact, in every period of Oriental history, the potters copied to some extent the works of their predecessors. In many cases, this was not a deliberate counterfeiting but rather in respect and admiration for those older works. In other cases, this copying was a deliberate attempt to deceive and to profit. For these reasons, it should be kept in mind that a reign mark on the bottom of a plate or vase may be nothing more than an "appropriate" decoration and not really a true date. Specifically, there can now be found in many shops really good examples of Imari or Rose Medallion (Famille Rose) or Kutani. These are beautiful works, well made, and sometimes justifiably expensive. They are just not truly the old items.

As you can see, the subject of Oriental Porcelains is a fascinating, diverse subject with ramifications, influences, and potentials. The whole point is, of course, "the more you learn, the more you find there still is to learn."

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