27 March 2013

Ming Polychrome Porcelains

A Ming polychrome jar, Jiajing mark and period, 1522-1566
Copyright Parvum Opus.

As part of the series of paintings for our Parvum Opus 2013 desk calendar, I chose to paint a portrait of this stunning Ming jar for the month of May. It was irresistible with those charming fish swimming around the perimeter, and the vibrant range of colors. Given the beautiful fish, a cheerful bunch of sunflowers seemed just the thing. This piece, nearly 500 years old, was created during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor, the 11th of the Ming Dynasty. Although his era name means "admirable tranquility," Wikipedia describes him as a ruthless leader whose neglect of his official duties led to the dynasty's decline. 

The Jiajing emperor aboard his state barge, from a scroll by an
unknown Ming artist, ca. 1538. Via Wikipedia.

I came across this very short but informative article about the history of multi-colored Chinese porcelains while visiting the British Museum website, a favorite online haunt. Courtesy of the British Museum: "The term 'overglaze enamels' is used to describe enamel decoration on the surface of a glaze which has already been fired. Once painted, the piece would be fired a second time, usually at a lower temperature. The first use of overglaze enamelling is found on the slip-covered wares of northern China. This was an innovation of the Jin dynasty (1115-1234), with documented pieces as early as 1201. These were utilitarian wares, not for imperial use. Under the emperors of the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1911) dynasty, the various techniques of overglaze enamelling reached their heights at the manufacturing centre in Jingdezhen.

Cizhou ware ceramic pillow, late 11th early 12th century.
Courtesy of the British Museum.

The article continues: "The most highly prized technique is known as doucai ('joined' or 'contrasted' colours), first produced under the Ming emperor Xuande (1426-35), but more usually associated with Chenghua (1465-87). Cobalt was used under the glaze to paint the outlines and areas of blue wash needed in the design. The piece was then glazed and fired at a high temperature. Overglaze colours were painted on to fill in the design. The piece was then fired again at a lower temperature.

From the British Museum: a Doucai Jar, 1465-87, Chenghua period

Lastly, the British Museum article describes the piece in my illustration:"Wucai wares, meaning 'five colours', were also developed in the Ming dynasty. A full palette of polychrome enamels or mixed colours is used. These pieces tend to be larger than doucai wares, with stronger colours, more intricate designs, and very little white showing. The best-known wucai wares are from the reign of Wanli (1573-1620). There were also important developments under the Qing dynasty. Famille rose (pink), jaune (yellow),noire (black) and verte (green) were overglaze enamel-decorated porcelains made from the Kangxi period (1662-1722) and later."

Very similar to the jar in my calendar illustration, this piece is
also Jiajing period. Courtesy of the British Museum.

I hope you'll agree that the development of this art form, with artisans' experimentation spread over a millennium, never ceases to amaze. 


  1. Hello Erika, The Ming polychromes are indeed impressive. While detailed and colorful, there is always a delicacy and restraint about them that shows the high level of taste of their first patrons. (Some later Ching wares, while they have their devotees, seem less refined.)

    In your painting, the sunflowers were the perfect touch to liven and update the jar. The curving yellow petals match the playfulness of the goldfish.

    I'm sure that you would love the Palace Museum in Taipei. There is always an impressive amount of porcelain on permanent display, and frequent special exhibits. I remember some very comprehensive ones on Ming wucai and doucai.
    --Road to Parnassus

  2. Dear Jim,
    Thank you for your kind words. I can't seem to get enough of these works of art: like the antique photos in your most recent post, they invite speculation about their motifs, the artists who made them, and the people who've owned them through the centuries...Fascinating! And I agree with you: these objects share a beautiful restrained aesthetic particular to their era. I briefly visited the website for the Palace Museum, and it looks absolutely wonderful-- a cultural treasure, surely. And, of course, now I'm thinking a trip to Taipei is in order!!!!How lucky you are to have this museum within reach.
    Warm regards,

  3. Dear Erika,

    Thank you for this informative posting, which I appreciate because I know so little about Chinese porcelain, or porcelain for that matter. I have read about Josiah Wedgwood and his scientific approach to measuring heat, however, and suppose that throughout Chinese history, he must have had his counterparts.

  4. Dear Mark,
    Thank you for your comments! (Somehow, my earlier reply has been lost in the ether....!?!?! So, let's try again.) Like you, I like the ways in which an object can inspire a bit of investigation, and the history of Chinese porcelains is such a long and interesting story! I'm a novice in this area, of course, but I find myself drawn to these beautiful pieces. Wedgwood is indeed an interesting character-- perhaps a post about him and his methodical approach (and his Asian contemporaries, as you mention) will be in my future!

    Warm regards,