Times & Places

Chinese Export Porcelain

Chinese potters were producing porcelain vessels centuries before their European counterparts, who did not learn how to make it until 1708. Subsequently, it remained an expensive luxury in Europe during the succeeding decades.

During the late 16th century, the Portuguese were trading with the Chinese for exotic luxuries including porcelain. The demand for this highly refined, hard, translucent ceramic was so great in Asia, Europe, and New Spain that hundreds of kilns and countless potters and decorators were employed in the city of Jingdezhen (Ching-tê Chên) in Jiangzi (Kiansi) Province in central eastern China making wares for export. Potential profits from dealing in Asian luxury goods were thought to be so great that several European nations eventually established monopolistic merchant companies to control this commerce. The Dutch East India Company, which was founded in 1602, became the main purveyor of porcelain to Europe after 1620, the year the Dutch took over Formosa (now Taiwan).

The Dutch imported blue and white ware (see 1985.R.953) in such large quantities that it is now known as Kraak porcelain, after the type of ship in which it was transported. Kraak porcelain was viewed as a curiosity and was sometimes mounted in gilt silver and placed in curio cabinets next to other rarities such as nautilus shells, branch coral, ostrich eggs, and carved coconuts. Because of its wide availability in Europe, it became tableware and interior decoration for the rich and an increasingly well-to-do middle class which preferred it to more breakable pottery. Kraak porcelain designs were copied in tin-glazed earthenware at Dutch, English, and French potteries in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Sometimes these pottery copies, slightly altered, as well as painted wood models, hand-colored drawings, pewter and silver objects, were sent to China to be copied in the lighter, sometimes translucent, chip-resistant porcelain.

The Chinese retook the trading center of Formosa from the Dutch, in 1662, making it more difficult for Europeans to trade. In 1673, the kilns at Jingdezhen were destroyed by internal violence and were rebuilt in 1682. From 1683 to 1750 China's porcelain industry achieved new heights under three successive directors of the imperial factories at Jingdezhen who were encouraged by the Qing dynasty emperors -- Kangxi (reigned 1662-1722), Yongzheng (reigned 1723-35); and Qianlong (reigned 1736-95).

During this time, Chinese potters introduced a wide range of colorful overglaze enamel combinations known as famille verte, famille rose, famille noire, and _famille jaune. _Such ware, known as Kangxi porcelain (see 1985.R.858) was, for the most part, made under the patronage of the art and trade conscious Emperor Kangxi (reigned 1662-1722). However, little of this multicolored pottery was sent abroad during the first part of his reign. Under Kangxi, Cang Yingxuan became head of the Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen in 1683. Once production was revived, large quantities of Kangxi porcelain were exported to Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. By this time, European taste had moved away from imported blue and white porcelains, so people were willing to pay more for the polychrome enamels exported to Jingdezhen. Under Cang Yingxuan's leadership, exceptional enameled pieces were produced.

During the reign of Kangxi's son, Yongzheng (reigned 1723-35), the palette of the porcelain painter was greatly expanded by the introduction of a red derived from gold which could be mixed with an opaque white to create various shades of pink. By the reign of Qianlong (reigned 1736-95), the whole range of enamel colors was fully developed and designs were introduced which remain popular today.

Trading vessels usually carried supercargoes, commercial agents in charge of buying and selling or bartering merchandise. They, as well as the captain and officers, were allowed a small percentage of the value of the entire cargo as private concessions. They often handled commissions for friends or business associates at home, and in this way much of the special order enamel-decorated Chinese porcelain, in particular armorial dinner services, came to Europe during the 18th century. By the 1740s much of the porcelain made at Jingdezhen (Ching-te Chen) was decorated in Canton so that it would be ready by the time the ships set sail for home.

Adapted from

  • Dallas Museum of Art, Decorative Arts Highlights from the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1995), 91-93.

  • Dallas Museum of Art, The Wendy and Emery Reves Collection (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1985), 184.

  • Label text, Reves Galleries, Porcelain Gallery, 2018