Chinese and Japanese Ceramics

By Gardiner Museum

Gardiner Museum

In addition to a significant collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain, the Gardiner Museum is also home to a collection of Japanese porcelain its influence on European porcelain.

Ko-Imari Flask (c.1660) by Unkonwn Artist, Hizen, JapanGardiner Museum


China and Japan have been mastering the art of making various forms of earthenware since the Neolithic Period. However, one of the most significant and far-reaching inventions in ceramic history was the discovery of porcelain in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907). Chinese porcelain is composed of two materials: kaolin (a white china clay) and petuntse (pulverised feldspathic rock, also known as china stone). When fired from temperatures in excess of 1250º C the body and the glaze fuse together and the porcelain becomes vitrified. Porcelain is characterized by being white, translucent, impermeable, and is resistant to thermal shock. China dominated the production of porcelain and its trade for thousands of years. However, the methods of its manufacture spread elsewhere in Asia, notably to Korea and Japan. Porcelain was also traded across Asia, where it inspired the development of tin-glazed earthenware in present-day Iraq in the ninth century. Tin-glaze technology eventually spread throughout the Islamic world and most of Europe, and its decoration was often influenced by imported Chinese porcelain. Inspired by both Chinese and Japanese wares, porcelain was made commercially in Europe from the late seventeenth century. The designs and forms of Chinese and Japanese ceramics continue to reverberate throughout the world today.

Double-gourd vase (Early 17th century) by Unknown Artist, Jingdezhen, ChinaGardiner Museum

Chinese Blue-and-White Porcelain

In the thirteenth century, the city of Jingdezhen in
Southern China became the main production centre of porcelain and by
1320, its potters further developed the use of cobalt blue for
underglaze decoration. Underglaze blue decoration dominated ceramics
from the early fourteenth century to the late 1700s. Blue-and-white
porcelain conquered markets in South East Asia, the Middle East, Europe,
and the Americas. It has aptly been called the first truly global
commodity, inspiring some of the major ceramic traditions around the
Blue-and-white porcelain made in Jingdezhen is the main focus of the
Gardiner’s collection of Chinese ceramics. It is especially rich in
objects made during the late Ming and Qing dynasties and illustrates the
broad demand for porcelain through wares made for various markets and
users: the imperial household, the scholar and gentry classes, and the
export market. Pieces in this collection also demonstrate the breadth of
Chinese and export themes and decorative motifs, including Buddhist and
Daoist iconography, auspicious symbols, mythical beings, and scenes
derived from literary sources, while integrating forms from various
The collection of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain was established by
Robert Murray Bell and Ann Walker Bell; this was the first donation of
Asian ceramics to the Gardiner Museum. It has since been expanded
through a significant gift from Janice Gross Stein and Susan Gross
Solomon in memory of Anne Romoff Gross.

The decoration on this vase depicts the theme of war and peace. The popular peace narrative shows figures in a landscape. On the lower half is a rare scene of the 'War of Pacification in Nanzhong' from Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Bowl with 'baxian ghohai' (Eight Daoist Immortals Crossing the Sea) (c.1723-1735) by Unknown Artist, Jingdezhen, ChinaGardiner Museum

The Eight Daoist Immortals were legendary figures who performed various miraculous feats and assisted people in need. This bowl depicts a popular story about a fight between the Eight Immortals and the Dragon Prince of the Eastern Sea.

Bianhu' (flask) with bajixiang or the eight Buddhist emblem (c.1736-95) by Unknown Artist, Jingdezhen, ChinaGardiner Museum

The shape of this flask derives from Middle Eastern water canteens in metal or glass carried by pilgrims or travelers. Each side features the Eight Buddhist Treasures: the wheel of the law, the conch shell, the umbrella, the canopy, the lotus flower, the vase, paired fish and the endless knot.

Mountain form brush-rest (c.1506-1521) by Unknown Artist, Jingdezhen, ChinaGardiner Museum

The inscription unfolding around the brush-rest reads: the pen is above all else.

Yen-yen' vase (c.1700-1715) by Unknown Artist, Jingdezhen, ChinaGardiner Museum

The deer is associated with good fortune as the Chinese word lu can also mean “wealth” or “official salary.” Pine trees and cranes were sometimes added to signify a wish for a long life.

Ewer with later mounts (early 16th century) by Unknown Artist, Jingdezhen, ChinaGardiner Museum

Based on an Islamic metal prototype, this ewer would have been used in hand-washing rituals preceding prayers and meals. It would have been accompanied by a large bowl or basin.

Meiping vase (Late 16th - early 17th century) by Jingdezhen, ChinaGardiner Museum

The painted midsection depicts the historical legend of two key figures who helped Liu Bang establish the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) titled Xiau He Chases Han Xin in the Moonlight.

Figure of a Bijin (c.1680) by Unknown Artist, Hizen, JapanGardiner Museum

Japanese Porcelain and Its Influence

When Chinese trade in porcelain became disrupted in the
mid-seventeenth century following the fall of the Ming Dynasty, the
Dutch East India Company turned to Japan, where it had an exclusive
foreign monopoly on trade. The Japanese began making porcelain at Arita
sometime around 1620. The earliest wares were decorated in underglaze
blue and are known as Shoko-Imari. Japanese potters soon became masters
of an exceptionally fine white body having discovered naturally mixed
deposits of porcelain clay, with decorations in both underglaze blue and
a distinctive but limited range of overglaze enamel colours. Different
styles of decoration are given different names. Ko-Kutani
emerged in the late 1640s for the domestic market, and is characterized
by bold designs and vivid colours. This was followed in the 1660s by the
Kakiemon style, with more transluscent colours and a tendency to use asymetrical designs, while the Imari style has a darker palette and is often enriched with gilding.
Kakiemon and Imari porcelain became immensely popular in Europe. Most
eighteenth-century and many nineteenth-century European porcelain
manufactories, as well as makers of faïence, copied the forms and
designs of Japanese porcelain. The William and Molly Anne Macdonald
Collection of Japanese Porcelain and Its Influence is one of the great
specialized collections at the Gardiner Museum.

Female figures are called bijin (beautiful women). Kakiemon figures are rare and their production atypical. Cast in moulds, they were first biscuit-fired in the low temperature Kakiemon enamelling kilns (muffle-kilns), next sent to the larger kilns to be glazed and high-fired, and then returned to the Kakiemon workshop for painting and a third firing. The figure’s kimono is decorated with stylized Chinese characters conveying good fortune.

Figure of a minogame (flaming tortoise) (c.1670-1690) by Unknown Artist, Hizen, JapanGardiner Museum

In Japanese mythology, the tortoise lived 10,000 years. Over time waterweeds grew on its shell. Europeans interpreted these waterweeds as flames, hence the name “Flaming Tortoise”.

In 1665, 295 small statuettes on tortoises, which had seated figures on their shells, were exported to Europe: this model is a similar piece.

Kakiemon Dish with Pines and Boats (1680-1700) by Unkonwn Artist, Hizen, JapanGardiner Museum

This rare dish depicts the pine-clad islands of
Matsushima Bay, a famous scenic spot on the coast
of Japan’s main island. The bright Kakiemon enamel
colours are enhanced by the special milky white
body that was created by washing the clay many
times to remove all impurities.

Ko-Imari Flask (c.1660) by Unkonwn Artist, Hizen, JapanGardiner Museum

The dense, colourful design on this flask is typical of the so-called “Old Imari” (Ko-Imari) style. The dynamic image of sinuous water plantains set against a background of vertical lines and scattered prunus blossoms would have required careful planning and great technical skill to execute.

Hexagonal covered jar, after a Japanese original (c.1752-1755) by Chelsea Porcelain ManufactoryGardiner Museum

England’s Queen Mary II owned several of the Japanese hexagonal jars, on which this model is based: several examples are still in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. This Meissen vase was in the collection of Augustus the Strong until the 1920s. Its Japanese prototype is still there.

Ewer in the Kakiemon Style (c.1735-1740) by Chantilly Porcelain ManufactoryGardiner Museum

Roof Sculpture of Equestrian Figure (15th-16th Century) by Unknown Artist, ChinaGardiner Museum

Other Chinese Ceramics

The Gardiner Museum’s holdings of Chinese porcelain include pieces from
other areas of production, including Dehua and Zhangzhou, as well as
examples of polychrome enamel styles of decoration developed during the
Qing Dynasty, namely famille verte and famille rose enamels. Other ceramic bodies, such as earthenware and stoneware, are also represented.

This sculpture would have decorated the central ridge of the roof on a Buddhist temple building. The sculpture depicts a warrior mounted on horseback and was probably intended to protect the building from evil influences. Sculptures of equestrian figures were also used as tomb furnishings.

Canteen with monkey figure (c.907-1124) by Unknown Artist, ChinaGardiner Museum

The Liao dynasty was founded in what is now northern China by the Khitan, a nomadic, tribal people who were ancestors of the Mongols. The Khitan adopted many aspects of Tang dynasty Chinese culture, which they often mixed with their own traditions to create new, hybrid forms of culture. This flask is a good example of that intermixing process. The materials - lead-glazed earthenware - come directly from Tang Chinese pottery, but the form is based on a traditional Khitan leather canteen. It was probably made to be buried in a tomb as a status symbol, which was another practice adopted by the Khitan from Chinese culture.

Bird (Late 16th - early 17th century) by Dehua, ChinaGardiner Museum

This Hawk is an example of Blanc de Chine, a term coined by art historian Albert Jacquemart in the 19th century and has since been used by collectors to describe white wares. Figures such as this hawk were decorative features within European houses, while in China, it was made for sturdy household goods for everyday use or private devotion.

Famille rose tea Canister and cover with couple in an interior (c.1730-1750) by Unkonwn Artist, ChinaGardiner Museum

This piece is an example of Chinese famille-rose export porcelain. Famille rose refers to a particular type of Chinese porcelain decorated with overglaze enamels, one of which is a distinctive pink or red colour derived from colloidal gold. The recipe for making this type of red enamel may have been inspired by information brought to China by European missionaries in the early 18th century.

It was developed by porcelain decorators at Jingdezhen sometime around the 1720s and became quite common on Chinese porcelains from the 1730s onwards.

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