Expert Jean Gauchet Explains Kangxi Porcelain

Jean Gauchet’s trip in China
July 11, 2016
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Expert Jean Gauchet Explains Kangxi Porcelain

Chinese art expert Jean Gauchet explains in a brief dissertation the history and nuances of 17th and 18th century Kangxi porcelain, and its impact on the Chinese art market today.

The long reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) was considered by many as the “golden era” for Qing porcelains, most notably are the blue and white wares. Under Emperor Kangxi, porcelains underwent enormous changes throughout a period of sixty years. Marking the arrival of Zang Yingxuan, the director of the newly revived imperial factory at Jingdezhen in 1683, the evolution of theses porcelains move from the robust character of the later Transitional Period style porcelains into the elegant opulence of the mid-Kangxi period, and was finally then followed by the more refined and subdued taste of the later porcelains-which marked the beginning of the Yongzheng era.

The Qing kilns mainly used home glaze materials. The earthly cobalt came from Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Guangdong and Guangxi. Kangxi under glaze blue wares use cobalt from Zhejiang. The color is clear and bright and comes in many shades, creating a three-dimensional effect on the surface of the ware that makes the design extraordinarily harmonious and vivid.  There is only one high temperature firing to be done. The history of blue and white porcelains dates back to as early as the Tang Dynasty. The Jindezhen Kiln carried out the tradition in the Yuan Dynasty, but it was during the Qing Dynasty and Emperor Kangxi’s reign that the Chinese blue and white wares achieved their climax both in terms of quality and quantity. All the aesthetic styles during the Ming Dynasty were reinvigorated. Also, with Kangxi blue and white wares, the color blue reveals a new nature of sapphire blue and is highly bright and pure compared to the earlier predecessors.

Additionally, the skilled craftsmen of the Kangxi era were proficient in their application of the blue glaze to create new various shades and multiple layers and dimensions. Imperial wares typically contained pure blue with a gradual fade into white at the images edge. Provincial wares often contained more of a grayish blue hue. Typical motifs on the imperial wares include arabesques, medallion flowers, cloud patterns, dragons, phoenix, etc. The provincial wares were decorated more with historical figures and stories and scenes of nature.

The Kangxi Emperor’s name was Xuanye AIXIN-JUELUO or Hiowan Yei AISIN-GIORO, in Manchu. He was born on May 4, 1654 and was the son of the late Emperor Shunzhi, who had died in his early twenties. He was the second emperor of the Qing dynasty to rule over all of China. His reign lasted 61 years. The Kangxi mark seems not to have been copied during the 18th century. One possibly explanation could be that both Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors seem to have been preoccupied with their own image and quite possibly had seen their own porcelain designs as superior to those of previous periods.

In the early Kangxi period, the six-character Ming mark of Chenghua is seen and occasionally Jiajing, but towards the end of the reign the Kangxi six-character kaishu mark is the one that is predominately used. All genuine Kangxi period marks should be of six characters. The only genuine four-character mark “Kangxi Nian Zhi” is finished within a double line square border and used exclusively for palace workshop decorated wares, the highest level of Imperial porcelain. All four character Kangxi marks without borders are from and around the Guangxu (1875-1908) period when four character kaishu marks were widely used.

The Emperor Kangxi’s predominant aim appears to have been to regain standards of quality that had long been lost, and to employ ancient techniques in a new way. Blue and white wares never ceased to be made at Jingdezhen, but to update designs, early on in his reign the Emperor Kangxi had already engaged a gifted painter, Liu Yuan (1638- 1685) for a decade to create restored designs. This approach of involving a designer, which is so familiar to us today, was highly unusual at the time. It resulted in a new departure for porcelain decoration. Although Liu Yuan worked for the imperial kilns, his designs clearly had an impact equally on the many commercially produced wares without reign marks.

Some collectors seem to find it difficult to differentiate between Chinese Kangxi blue and white porcelain and the earlier Transitional wares. There are a few methods to differentiate the two. In the outdoor scenes on Transitional wares the grass is always depicted with “V” shapes; Transitional blue and white often have an incised “an-hua” border and some shapes were peculiar to each of the periods. In the case of the finer pieces of Transitional porcelain the figure painting is “tighter” than that found on the Kangxi blue and whites.

To understand blue and white from the perspective of shape is relatively simple. Most shapes tend to be standardized, are elegant focused on the taste of scholars and reflect the nobility of imperial ware. Although the shapes are not limited to bottles, jars, plates bowls, vases and other variations, it is rare to see pieces that do not fit these general categories. When porcelain makers were developing the more avant-garde colors and shapes during the Kangxi, Yongzheng and especially Qianglong reigns, the shapes of blue and white porcelain still remained relatively consistent. The guanyin vase, mallet vase, beaker-shaped vase, taibai jar, willow-leaf vase are all example products of the Kangxi period.

Under Emperor Kangxi, export trade was soon reopened and began to flourish. After about A.D 1680, the European traders resumed their active purchase of porcelains after the kilns in Jingdezhen undergone re-organisation and again able to produce quality porcelains Chinese export porcelain from the late 17th century included mainly blue and white wares along with famille verte wares. This included garnitures of vases, tea wares, ewers, dishes, etc. These export porcelains, and Blanc de Chine porcelains and Yixing stonewares gave many European artisans inspiration. During the Kangxi period, blue and white and famille verte palette were the main mediums for decoration for export porcelains.

The motifs of the wares made for within China and those for export are essentially the same, but the composition such as those for the plate or dish, is crowded.  They usually include panels on the rim, which are reserved for additional motifs.  There are also wares with obvious European shape.

Canton was the designated port, which most Europeans were allowed to conduct business with China.  It was in 1699 when Kangxi emperor permitted the English to acquire goods, mainly consisting of blue and white porcelain and tea in Canton for shipment back to England. The English was the first to set up a production factory By the second half of 18th century, a row of factories each flying the flag of a different European country; English, Dutch, French, Swedish, Danish, etc were built, and the porcelain produced there often includes scenes from the river bank in its design.

Increasingly, the European consumers were demanding porcelains decorated with European themes, especially those found in prints from engravings by European artists.  These include: pastoral European scenes, religious themes such as crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, historical and nautical events. Another popular theme showed the European perception of the Chinese engaging in various domestic activities. The export trade peaked in 1750, but continued until the end of the 18th century. The blue and white dishes made especially for export from 1760 onward usually have an elaborately decorated band on the rim.