|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."