05 November 2012

Porcelain of the K'ang-hsi Period

The February 2013 desk calendar illustration: a porcelain jar and cover, 1661-1722, China
Today I'd like to share another watercolor painting I did for for our 2013 desk calendar, which depicts a stunning Chinese blue and white porcelain jar and cover from the reign of K'ang-hsi, 1661-1722. With so much mass-produced junk on the market, some may feel blue and white porcelains are uninteresting ubiquitous. I feel, however, that antique blue and white porcelains from Asia and Europe are so finely made and have such interesting histories, that perhaps a little background information on this exquisite art form and the ruling emperor of the period will restore the magic...
A porcelain charger from the K'ang-hsi period
According to Jeffrey Munger and Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chinese porcelains were introduced into Europe in the fourteenth century, and were regarded as extremely rare and luxurious objects. "By the early sixteenth century—after Portugal established trade routes to the Far East and began commercial trade with Asia—Chinese potters began to produce objects specifically for export to the West and porcelains began to arrive in some quantity...The porcelains were often stored at the lowest level of the ships, both to provide ballast and because they were impervious to water, in contrast to the even more expensive tea stored above. The blue-and-white dishes that comprised such a significant proportion of the export porcelain trade became known as kraak porcelain, the term deriving from the Dutch name for caracca, the Portuguese merchant ship. Characteristic features of kraak dishes were decoration divided into panels on the wide border, and a central scene depicting a stylized landscape." (You may notice that these features are indeed visible on the lidded jar in my  painting above.)
A grouping of K'ang-hsi miniatures
Mr. Munger and Ms. Frelinghuysen continue, "Porcelain decorated only in blue pigment painted under the glaze dominated the export trade until the very end of the seventeenth century...With the appearance of porcelain factories in Europe in the early eighteenth century, the demand for Chinese export porcelain began to diminish, and by the second half of the century the trade was in serious decline... New geographical markets, however, revitalized the export porcelain industry. Following the nation's newfound independence in 1784, America officially entered into trade with China. Consistent with European trade, American agents in China expedited special orders for clients... By the late nineteenth century, Chinese export porcelains, especially blue-and-white ware, had achieved a status in this country above the merely utilitarian. Looked upon with nostalgia, they became emblematic of the colonial era."
The young K'ang-hsi Emperor

From Jonathan Spence of  Yale, we learn about the fascinating K'ang-hsi Emperor himself: "Hsüan-yeh, born in 1654, reigned from 1661 to 1722 as the K'ang-hsi Emperor. He was one of China's greatest rulers, and his reign was not only the longest but also one of the most vibrant and complex in the history of imperial China. Though he could be callous or negligent at times, and made errors of judgment, he possessed a self-analytical acuity and a sense of imperial mission that mark him as one of those rare individuals who, by acts of will, change the course of human history. It has not escaped the notice of numerous historians – Chinese, Japanese, and Western – that his reign coincided chronologically with those of Tsar Peter the Great in Russia and King Louis XIV in France, and that the three shared certain common characteristics that marked perhaps the apogee of traditional kingship in pre-industrial societies."

The K'ang-hsi Emperor in court dress,

Tsar Peter the Great,
and King Louis XIV-- three peas in a pod.

"Any emperor of China was, of course, merely one individual, occupying a special position within his society but unable to comprehend all that society's ramifications. Also, the actions and thoughts ascribed to him were often those of others, of relatives, courtiers, eunuchs, bureaucrats. Therefore we must be cautious about seeing the ruler as the reign, of narrowing our own vision to the emperor's own. Nevertheless, the K'ang-hsi Emperor acted decisively in so many matters, and took so great an interest in affairs of governance and of culture, that his actions and his personality serve as a valid entry point for comprehending the myriad elements that led to the consolidation of Ch'ing rule."
From the series: The Cambridge History of China
Volume 9 Part 1Part one: The Ch'ing Empire to 1800
Chapter TitleChapter 3: The K'ang-hsi Reign
Publication Date2002
AuthorJonathan D. Spence

Jonathan Spence is also the author of a highly regarded biography of K'ang-hsi entitled  Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K'ang-hsi. It is widely available through online booksellers, with an ISBN as follows: 978-0679720744. I just ordered one myself!

If your curiosity has been piqued, you may  also enjoy this link to a very interesting YouTube documentary video on the history of Chinese porcelains:

And as always, you are most welcome to visit www.parvumopus.com to see all of our 2013 calendar motifs.


  1. Hello Erika:
    Yes, you are quite right when you say that we may have become visually overloaded with images of blue and white china and so have lost the ability to truly appreciate its quality. You have presented a most interesting account here and, certainly for us, have given an interesting perspective with the relationship between the three rulers, something which has never occurred to us before.

    Your painting of the lidded vase is beautiful. Such exquisite detail,and something which would, for us, reveal more each time we looked upon it. What amazing skill and talent you have.

    1. Dear Jane and Lance,
      Thank you once again for your very kind words. I'm so pleased that you enjoyed this post-- we all have Dr. Spence to thank for aligning the Chinese, Russian and French rulers. I'd never thought in these terms either, and this taste of Dr. Spence's writing has prompted me to purchase his biography of K'ang-hsi for some further exploration....
      With warm regards,

  2. Dear Erika,
    I showed your painting to AGA and at first he thought it was a photograph. I agree with Jane and Lance: What a wonderful talent you have.
    Queen Mary II of England was fascinated by blue and white china. She collected a lot of it and you can see it on display within the rooms of Kensington Palace.
    The painting of the Emperor K'ang hsi when an older man shows his throne placed upon an interesting looking carpet! I wonder if there is an accessible biography of this emperor...
    I enjoyed reading this fascinating post,
    Thank you,

    1. Dear Kirk,
      Thank you for your very kind message. I'm so glad that you enjoyed seeing the painting and looking back at this type of china. It's so interesting to think of Queen Mary collecting these objects which would have been modern for her! With you in mind, I did a little digging and found what looks to be a wonderful biography of K'ang-hsi by Jonathan Spence who seems fascinating in his own right! I've updated the post with the book's particulars in case you are as impatient as me and go straight to Amazon...my own copy is on the way...
      With warm regards,

  3. Dear Erika - I am loving seeing your work. This watercolour is exquisite, the freshness of the blue and white, the lovely illustration, and the delicate sheen you have painted to give the jar solidity - beautiful.
    I was fortunate enough to see a yellow Emperor's dragon court dress when I visited the Forbidden City in the early 1980s. However, I cannot be sure whether it was the one belonging to the K'ang-hsi Emperor or not, but I do remember how beautiful the colours and the embroidery were.
    Blue and white china seems to come in and out of fashion frequently, and with the resurgence of interest from the Chinese themselves, I think that it is once again in favour.

    1. Dear Rosemary,
      I am so pleased that you enjoyed this post--thank you for your very kind words! I really do enjoy painting these beautiful objects and taking the time to look very carefully at them. A joy! It must have been wonderful to visit the Forbidden City and see all of the treasures for yourself--it's amazing how deeply the emperors' collections influenced the quality of the work produced not just for royal use, but subsequently for national use, export, etc. If it weren't for the exceedingly high standards of the work done for the emperors, parhaps the technical advances in porcelain, embroidery, etc. would have been delayed or worse!
      Thanks again and warm regards,

  4. Hello Erika, Your wonderful painting reminds me of the paintings of ceramics produced during the Ching Dynasty for catalogs of the Imperial Collection. The details on your painting of the Kang-Hsi porcelain are exquisite, and echo the hand-painting on the original jar. The intense bright blue adds the vivid effect of watercolor on paper, and except for the subject matter we could almost be looking at a Medieval manuscript.

    I know what you mean about the ubiquity of blue and white, but I don't think that ever detracts from original masterpieces like this Kang-Hsi jar.
    --Road to Parnassus

  5. Dear Jim,
    Thank you for your wonderful words--I'm so glad that you enjoyed this painting. You've inspired me to look into the Ching Dynasty catalog paintings and learn from the masters! It's interesting that you bring up medieval manuscripts: they are a subject of deep fascination for me, and I see parallels in the attention to minute detail and a certain flattening of space between the medieval European and Chinese artists. A subject worthy of more investigation....To the library!
    With thanks and warm regards,

  6. Dear Erika,

    Another beautiful painting by you, and I appreciate how you have even been able to give the appearance of a sheen. The pattern of interlocking circles is not only cross-cultural but also spans time so as to appear very modern.

    I took your suggestion and watched the documentary on the history of Chinese porcelain. The drive for perfection is fascinating, and yet it's so interesting that even within that strict discipline, experimentation and even happy accidents furthered the art form.

    Thanks for a marvelous posting! You've interested me in knowing more about K'ang-hsi.

    Best wishes, Mark

  7. Dear Mark,
    Thank you for your very kind message-- I'm so pleased that you liked this post. Your comment about the interlocking circles reminds me of your own fascinating posts on Greek keys, and of Owen Jones' "Grammar of Ornament": "all lines flow out of a parent system: every ornament, however distant, can be traced to its branch and root." Very intriguing... Another classic text on ornament that I'm sure you're familiar with is Gombrich's "The Sense of Order." It's one of my favorites! Perhaps I'll have to do a post on these two texts?!

    Like you, I've become quite interested in K'ang-hsi after writing this post. That biography that I mentioned has wonderful reviews, so I'm hoping my copy will arrive soon. Isn't it interesting how one reading or experience can lead to a completely new and unexpected area of interest or study?
    Warm regards,

  8. Dear Erika ~
    A beautiful, elegant and informative post! Thanks for the history on Chinese export porcelain and the K'ang-hsi period. From Delft faience to Staffordshire pottery to Chinese porcelain, I love reading and learning about blue-and-white china. Your watercolor painting is exquisite and very fine.

  9. Dear Loi,
    Thank you for your kind message--I'm so pleased that you enjoyed this post. Like you, I am fascinated by the ways in which artists in different countries produced blue and white porcelain & pottery. In the calendar for 2012, I featured an early 19thC Staffordshire cream jug and a very early Johannes Knotter Delft teapot from the collection at Historic Deerfield, not so far from you. Both beautiful in their own way!
    Warm regards,

  10. Hello, adorei conhecer a história da porcelana chinesa. Sempre tive grande admiração por este povo e seus inventos de tanta beleza.
    Have a nice week.
    Anajá Schmitz

  11. Anaja querida,
    Obrigado por sua gentil mensagem. Estaremos compartilhando mais sobre essas belas antiguidades nas proximas semanas e convida-lo para se juntar a nos novamente!