History of Chinese porcelains

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the European demand for Chinese porcelains brought about extraordinary developments in this art. Porcelain which lends itself to light and delicate gradations of color, became the typical material of Rococo art. In this subtlety of feeling lies the secret of the affinity in style of Rococo and Chinese culture. Sublimated in the delicate tints of fragile porcelain, in the vaporous hues of shimmering Chinese silks there revealed itself to the minds of that gracious eighteenth century in Europe a vision of happy living.

K'ang Hsi and Ch'ien Lung both took an intelligent and wholehearted interest in the development of this branch of Chinese art. K'ang Hsi made an early move to transfer some of the Ching Tê factories to Peking, but for some reason or other the attempt died at birth and Ching Tê, stronger than ever, remained for centuries the metropolis of porcelain manufacture.

When Tsang Yuan-hsuan, Secretary of the Imperial Board of Works in 1683, was put in charge of the imperial kilns, a period of unprecedented development was inaugurated. Chinese books which tell about this unusual man say that when he was at work "God laid a finger to the drawing and at the same time prevented the porcelain in the kilns from mishaps." He was an artist himself but must also have been a man of exceptional humane and administrative gifts. It is generally believed that the great success of his administration was partly due to the improvements which he made in the living and working conditions of the workmen, who were given more freedom and comfort, and who consequently gave better workmanship and showed an increased artistic initiative.

The bulk of K'ang Hsi and Ch'ien Lung porcelains are decorated with painted or enamelled designs, although some of the earlier monochromes were reproduced. A great deal of white ware was made for mourning, and Celadons continued to be made. But the glaze of these later pieces is like shining satin compared to the soft velvety touch of the Sung potteries which remained unsurpassed.

This, however, was not only a period of reproductions; new types of great beauty were also created. Most famous of these is the red sang-debœuf, sometimes called oxblood, a material infrequently used in its manufacture. It is a luminous, ruby-like red with a mottled effect sometimes showing through the glaze. The red of the sang-de-bœuf was usually obtained from copper, and so was the exquisite rare peach-bloom which, in the best pieces, was made over a Celadon foundation. The Ch'ing Dynasty monochromes come in many colors. There is a cheerful apple-green with a heavy crackle drawn in and a powder-blue decorated with white medallions. Some of these new creations are best known under their European names--such as the delicate clair de lune, an evanescent pale blue, which usually comes in small artistic pieces.

Images of Kuanyins, Lohans and Buddhist divinities, formerly made in bronze, stone and marble, were now made in porcelain. These images often show beautiful workmanship and sometimes an individual idea is expressed; but the bulk of this type, and there is a great deal of it, adheres to standardized models and becomes monotonous and uninteresting in its unending repetition of the same motives.

A great deal of Ch'ing porcelain comes in blue and white. This type seems to have made a special appeal to the mariners from the West. The fresh, clean-looking blue and white so-called ginger jars--their decoration nearly always a prunous white plum blossom on a crackled, intensely blue ground which means to the Chinese the end of winter, the coming of spring and the new year of feasting and joy--can be found all over the world, even in New England skippers' homes where they seem to have been made to harmonize with the rag carpets and muslin curtains.

The elegant vivid black and green Hawthorne vases and the whole resplendent famille verte, famille rose, famille noire, and famille jaune, with their stylish French names, fitted equally well into Europe's drawing rooms during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These tall slender vases, sometimes rounded, sometimes with square sides and in many other shapes besides, show in their designs a brilliant array of the flowers of the garden and field in all the colors of the rainbow, with scenes from history and everyday life sometimes depicted.

Connoisseurs of Ch'ing porcelains make a distinction between the earlier K'ang Hsi and the later Yung Ch'eng and Ch'ien Lung ware. The bright greens of the earlier period became subdued during the later reigns. The polychrome famille rose takes the place of the brilliant famille verie. Ch'ing porcelain can easily be studied, as this branch of Chinese art has been more fully covered in books and collections than any other. These later porcelains drew the attention of the West long before any other forms of Chinese art were known. Until the last few decades the West was unaware that this artisans' art was but the brilliant autumn coloring of an art that had existed for thousands of years.

In the decorative art of this period, lacquer became a much used material. The lac tree was cultivated in China even before the Christian era. Colonel Kozloff in excavating Chinese tombs in Mongolia found a well-preserved, exquisitely made and decorated lacquer bowl from before the Christian era. Tables and other objects made of lacquer have also been excavated from Chinese tombs from about the same time, and several lacquer paintings have been found in Korean tombs from a few centuries later and utensils were made of lacquer for the imperial household during the Sung Dynasty, gold and silver lacquer with a plain undecorated surface. During the Mongol régime elaborately carved pieces came into vogue, and pieces inlaid with mother-of-pearl. A great deal of lacquer from the Ming Dynasty has been preserved and shows, as a rule, finer workmanship than later objects. The designs from this period are usually painted in traditional motifs, willowy ladies, pompous officials and romantic garden scenes.

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