Chinese Porcelains


WITH the Chinese porcelains purchased from Samuel P. Avery nearly forty years ago, and the magnificent J. Pierpont Morgan Collection of the same ware exhibited here on loan since 1894, the Museum display of later Chinese ceramics has long been among the best anywhere available to the public a display which the Altman bequest now makes of unrivaled importance. The four hundred and twenty-nine examples of porcelain in the Altman Collection are all pieces of very high order, typifying the best of which Chinese art was capable in its last brilliant period, and illustrating phases of K’ang Hsi and Ch’ien Lung wares heretofore only partly represented among porcelains shown in the Museum. As a. result, Chinese porcelains may now be seen in greater number and of proportionately finer quality in this Museum than in any other, and the unending variations of a splendid art can here be followed with a. more complete series of illustrative examples than is found elsewhere throughout the Occident gathered together under a single roof.

Technical Processes

Although everyone is familiar with the appearance of porcelain, its exact constitution is perhaps not so well known, and a brief statement of the nature of the material and the method of manufacture may aid in the appreciation of the vases and jars included in the Altman Collection. In body, Chinese porcelain, like all European imitations of the same ware, is trans-lucent, vitrified pottery, hard as a stone, very white, and infusible save at an exceedingly high temperature. Examined minutely it has the appearance of a natural mineral which is neither glass nor rock, although partaking of the nature of both, a circumstance due to the chemical combination of the two chief and essential elements of which it is compounded, known as kaolin and petuntse, species of clay and decomposed stone, without which no true porcelain has yet been produced.

The first step in the established method of making such porcelain vessels and ornaments as are comprised in the Altman Collection is to reduce these two chief elements, combined with others less essential, to a fine paste, from which the potter shapes the de-sired object either in a plaster mould or on the revolving table called the potter’s wheel. The vase or figure thus made is slowly dried not baked after which, if the piece is intended to be other than pure white in color, it is ready to receive its ornament in one of three ways. If the chosen decoration be of blue on a white background, it is almost invariably produced by painting the design in cobalt on the dry surface of the piece, which is then dipped in glaze and placed in the kiln, where it is subjected to the intense heat of the grand feu, emerging finished and complete in all essentials,• as an example of the large class of porcelain termed “underglaze blue.” If, however, the piece is to be practically solid in color, no painting with the brush is necessary, metallic oxides being mixed with the glaze, which under the grand feu assumes either widely variegated tints or else plain, deep hues of translucent brilliancy. Sometimes the color in powder form is blown through gauze on to a clear wet glaze and the result is the well-known “powder blue” and other colors with similar faintly mottled texture. Such pieces are classed as “plain colors” or “monochromes” and usually require no second firing. The third method is used for poly-chrome enamels, which, being fugitive under the high temperature necessary to vitrify the body of the porcelain, are applied on the white surface of a piece which has been previously glazed and fired. These “enamel” or “overglaze colors” are then fused into the surface of the object by one or more additional firings at a lesser temperature in what is called the “muffle kiln.” I t may be noted here that whichever of these processes is used probably no piece of Chinese porcelain is entirely the work of one man, and that some of the more splendidly decorated specimens are said to pass through the hands of seventy workmen before completion. This may very well be true of a number of vases in the Altman Collection, which embraces examples of all the methods and types just referred to.

Historical Note

The use of the basic materials of porcelain was known to the Chinese for many centuries before the secret was discovered by European potters, and native tradition, which has long revered porcelain as a precious and half-magical substance, places the beginning of the art in the remote and legendary past. However, no known fragment of vitrified ware has descended to us from very ancient times and it is not until the beginning of the Sung dynasty in the tenth century of the Christian era that there is tangible proof of the manufacture of any substance approaching porcelain, as we define it. From that period onward through the succeeding Yuan and Ming dynasties the art has been constantly in process of development and many remarkable wares of widely varying types have been produced, until, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, under the last, or Ching dynasty, porcelain in China reached a state of excellence admitting of no improvement and marking the culmination of an art which has steadily declined ever since. During this period of nearly ten centuries the chief center of porcelain manufacture has been a single city called Ching-tê-chên, situated in central China near the hills which supply the necessary clays, and at times in the past numbering its inhabitants at more than a million souls, all engaged in tending the flaring kilns which covered the mountain sides in hundreds. A portion of these kilns produced porcelain for the imperial court only and were controlled directly by governors designated by the Son of Heaven to rule the province as well as the city, four of whom, appointed successively during the epoch of the greatest fertility, were potters of remarkable genius and gave their names to numerous inventions which are now recognized as among the most noteworthy in the history of porcelain.

With a few exceptions all the Chinese porcelain in the Altman Collection dates from the era of these four governors and the period of full accomplishment in the art of porcelain manufacture when consummate knowledge of the material and unfailing success in its manipulation were combined with a vigorous decorative sense and a mastery of the principles of design. This brilliant epoch lasted little more than a century and a quarter, and may be divided into two parts, the first coinciding with the reign of the Emperor K’ang Hsi from 1662 to 1722, and the second with the rule of his successors, Yung Ch’ing, who occupied the throne until 1735, and Ch’ien Lung, who abdicated in 1796, after sixty years of power. All three were princes who through intelligent and unremitting personal interest stimulated the porcelain industry to its most productive phase and their names are indissolubly connected with the art.

The wares of this period were the first to reach Europe in any quantity; for although occasional examples of earlier porcelain had been carried through Persia to Venice and thence to the north, no direct trade with the Far East was possible until the rounding of the Horn opened the seas to Portuguese, Dutch, and English merchants. These soon began to bring back with them from their trading voyages quantities of blue and white porcelain, and later colored ware, which created a great furore in Europe and widely influenced the future development of Occidental decorative art. Delft pottery, Dresden and Sèvres porcelains, and many forms of British ceramics were the direct outcome of attempts to imitate the inimitable Chinese ware, which from the beginning aroused fervid admiration among collectors and was sought after with a persistent devotion. This devotion has increased rather than diminished ever since, until in our own day the valuation placed on Chinese porcelains of fine quality seems very high indeed, although the statement is often made that in China native collectors pay for representative specimens larger sums even than European buyers.

The earlier importers of porcelain had only vague ideas as to the chronology of the manufacture and were prone to consider pieces older than was actually the case, largely because the innate Chinese reverence for antiquity led the potters to sign most of their ware with a date two or three centuries older than could honestly be claimed, in the belief that Western nations would gauge the value of any object according toits age. This is the explanation of the “apocryphal” marks on porcelain whereby one finds pieces stamped with the seal of an emperor who died two or three hundred years before that type of porcelain began to be issued from the kiln. Although the historical information of our china-collecting ancestors was fanciful, they invented for their possessions a useful classification according to ornament and color. Thus among pieces decorated in polychrome certain general classes were established and called by the French terms of famille verte, famille noire, famille jaune, famille rose, as green, black, yellow, or rose happened to predominate in their color. “Haw-thorn” vases, which may belong to any of the first three groups, were named because of the subject of their decoration and are more fully mentioned below. In referring to the monochromes sang de boeuf, clair de lune, blanc de Chine, rouge d’or, and other old French phrases descriptive of color have been incorporated into every porcelain collector’s vocabulary and are heard much more often than their English equivalents. One word, however, carne directly from the East into the English language, the term “china” which we now use to apply to all manner of porcelanous wares.

The Collection

A number of the Altman pieces, in so far as their history can be traced, were brought to Europe shortly after their manufacture and have been known since the eighteenth century. Among these are several specimens in the most outstanding group of the collection, the forty splendid HAWTHORN VASES, which rank both in number and in quality among the finest porcelains in existence. The fact that the main subject of the enameled decoration of these vases is the prunus flower, a blossoming shrub resembling the English hawthorn, gives this type of ware its name, even though the prunus occasionally is omitted from the ornament and is often mingled with other flowers and with birds and insects. The black, yellow, or green backgrounds of these vases are added after the other decorations, and the quality of the color, as well as the freedom with which it is applied, helps in determining the age of the piece. Of the thirty-two specimens with black backgrounds the five pieces, Nos. 1 to 5 in CASE G, GALLERY 3, forming a garniture du cheminèe or mantle set, were evidently made early in the reign of K’ang Hsi and are remarkable among a remarkable group for the dignity and simplicity of their form, for their glossy black grounds covered with a film of iridescent green glaze, and for the bold mastery with which the ornament is drawn. Scarcely less splendid in quality and of the same early date are the three vases numbered 6, 7, and 8, in CASE Q, GALLERY 3, while the other superb black Hawthorns in this room show the minor refinements which the next few decades brought to this type of porcelain. No. 9, CASE L, is particularly noteworthy among the later specimens, both for finish and for design. The six Hawthorns with yellow backgrounds are of a type even rarer than the black the central vase, No.10 in CASE R, being without a duplicate, so far as is known. The monumental example of green Hawthorn, No. i i, CASE J, the only specimen of the color in the collection, is unexcelled among porcelains of this variety.

The collection includes twenty-three specimens of FAMILLE VERTE ware in which green against a white background is the predominant color among the variegated enamels of the ornament. CASES A, C, E, S, and T of GALLERY 3 contain most of the examples of this comprehensive species of porcelain. The charming decoration of Nos. 12, 13, and 14, indicates the appearance of a Hawthorn vase before the colored background is added, but because of the omission here of any tinted ground these vases are classed as famille verte, although the prunus flower appears among the ornament. No. 15 is interesting in that the subject of the decoration is the “Hundred Antiques,” legendary treasures often depicted in Chinese art. No. 16, CASE S, is unusual in having underglaze blue combined with overglaze enamels. The figures

in the CENTRAL CASE, C, on the EAST WALL in GALLERY 3, are almost all of the famille verte, although the large statuette No. 17, of Kuan Yin, the beneficent Buddhist deity, is one of the few porcelains in the Altman Collection antedating the reign of K’ang Hsi. This and the smaller figure, No. 18, are productions of the end of the sixteenth century, late in the Ming dynasty, and are typical of the more restricted color scheme and bolder conception of form out of which developed the K’ang Hsi specimens grouped about them.

Among the MONOCHROME PORCELAINS, which are distributed through both galleries, the SANG DE BOEUF or ox-blood reds will at once attract the visitor by their intense color. Some of these are known as flambe from the flame-like variegations which the glaze has assumed in the firing. These gorgeous reds, as well as the APPLE-GREEN of the vases in CASE H in GALLERY 3 and in N in GALLERY 4, are produced from copper, through processes invented by the first of the four famous porcelain governors named Lang, whence the varieties are known as Lang-yao or Lang’s ware.

CASE O, in GALLERY 4, is remarkable in that it contains no fewer than thirty-three examples of the delicate rosy glaze which in this country is called PEACH-BLOW or peach-bloom, but which the Chinese term apple-red or haricot-red. This color, produced from copper, was peculiar to the time of K’ang Hsi and is rarely found on other than the small and restricted shapes represented here. Such ware has long been eagerly sought after, especially in America, but among the collections of peach-blow owned in this country none is known to equal in number or exceed in merit the group included in the Altman bequest.

The method of ornamenting porcelain in UNDER GLAZE BLUE is illustrated by the many specimens of blue and white ware placed chiefly in CASES A, B, and C of GALLERY 4. These vases are esteemed in pro-portion to the intensity of the blue used in their decoration; and the deep strong color of Nos. 19 and 20 is noteworthy, as is that of the blue Hawthorn jar, called a “Ginger Jar,” No. 21, which was made to be filled, not with ginger for commercial exportation, but with sweetmeats sent from one friend to another on the New Year. The name originated in the early days of trade with the East when the European importers put their porcelains to uses which the makers had never intended. The decoration of blue and white porcelain is varied in design, the more closely patterned pieces being in a general way the earlier. Most of those shown here date from the K’ang Hsi period, but, among others, Nos. 22 and 23 are fine examples of later ware. The small box, No. 24, also of the second part of the eighteenth century, is interesting in having on its cover a representation of the eight trigrams of divination, a symbol of ancient Chinese magic.

With the new Emperor, Yung Ch’ing, and the governor succeeding Lang, the ornament of porcelain became feminized and the old strong colors were replaced by a variety of softer tints. An example of the productions of this reign is No. 25, CASE N, GALLERY 3, although as a whole the distinction is not sharply drawn between wares of this transition period and those of the following epoch, when the master potters of the Emperor Ch’ien Lung carried to highest pitch the refinement of structure, surface, and ornament of porcelain.

Dating from Ch’ien Lung’s time and grouped chiefly in CASES I and K of GALLERY 3 are the vases of the FAMILLE ROSE, SO called from the characteristic pale crimson or rouge d’or, the most noteworthy color among the enamels. This opaque tint, which is produced by gold, was invented at about the same time that an almost identical color, the rose Dubarry, made its appearance in France. Combined with the new enamel are many others not found in the older porcelain, notably a thick opaque white which is often tinted in gradations of rose. Among the monochromes, also, a similar preference exists at this time for delicate modified hues and smooth, almost smug surface. The little bottles in pearl gray, coral red, clair de lune, and other flower-like tints, shown in CASE D of GALLERY 3, illustrate the new tastes for subtle color.

Toward the end of the Ch’ien Lung period the fashion in color underwent a further modification and to the rather raw tints of the time was added a fondness for the use of gold and for a complexity of geometrical ornament. This is partly illustrated, and in its most attractive phase, by the EGG-SHELL plates and cups “with seven borders,” Nos. 26 to 29 of CASE M in GALLERY 3, and in a larger way by the pair of great vases, Nos. 30 and 31 in GALLERY 3, which were made to stand at the entrance of the hall of audience in some nobleman’s house. They show the heavier quality of the enamels used at this time, and the mode of combining a large number of separate tints to suggest a heavily jeweled area. The vase numbered 32 in CASE O, GALLERY 3, is representative of the last phase of the eighteenth-century porcelain, when the designer’s taste and judgment were less sure than formerly, and his work presaged the complete stagnation which a great art was to suffer for the next hundred years.

The several beautiful ALL-WHITE VASES, which have always been popular since the beginning of Chinese ceramics, and which are usually considered as a single class, with regard rather to quality and color than to chronology, are represented in CASE E, GALLERY 4. Among the others No. 33 is typical of the later stage of the porcelain industry, dating from Ch’ien Lung’s time. No. 34, with its fine incised ornament is K’ang Hsi, while Nos. 35 and 36 are much more ancient, being specimens of the white porcelain produced in the Sung and Yuan dynasties, and termed Ting Yao from their place of manufacture. The three small libation or wedding cups, Nos. 37, 38, and 39 in CASE E, GALLERY 4, it may be noted, together with the figure of Kuan Yin, No. 40, in CASE C of GALLERY 3, were probably made at a factory in the province of Fuchien, which specialized in uncolored ornamental pieces and manufactured much delicate white ware of this type and glaze known in France as blanc de Chine. All the other pieces in the collection were presumably made at Ching-tê-chên. The graceful bowl, No. 41, is of special interest in that it is one of the famous Yung Lo porcelains which bear incised in the fragile paste the seal of the Emperor of that name who ruled from 1402 to 1424. Until very recently these pieces were thought to be beyond question documents of that period, but it has lately become known that a Japanese potter of the early nineteenth century produced similar ware and signed it with the ancient Chinese seal, which he was lawfully entitled to use through the grant of the feudal lord of the district in recognition of skill and accomplishment. Although these bowls answer precisely the ancient literary descriptions of Yung Lo’s time in praise of contemporary porcelain, no proven specimen of the ware seems to have been known before the early nineteenth century, and consequently it is now thought that these bowls, which exist in considerable number, are deliberate modern reconstructions made by a remarkably clever Japanese who was almost our contemporary.

A few miscellaneous Chinese objects not porcelain have been placed in these galleries because of their Oriental provenance, and among them are a jar in opaque glass, No. 42, CASE E, GALLERY 4; a Ming cloisonné vase, No. 43, CASE N, GALLERY 3; and two covered jars, Nos. 44 and 45, CASE M, GALLERY 3, which are of copper ornamented in painted enamels. Although these last two are late specimens of a genre which never attained conspicuous merit, they are of interest in being the first objects of art which attracted Mr. Altman’s attention, and he always regarded them with affection as the nucleus from which his entire collection grew.