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The Blue and White Pandemic

/ Art Shots

Curated by Katherine Anne Paul, PhD, The Virginia and William M. Spencer III Curator of Asian Art / Anne Forschler-Tarrasch, PhD, Chief Curator and The Marguerite Jones Harbert and John M. Harbert III Curator of Decorative Arts

A different kind of pandemic has been sweeping the world in waves over centuries: our love for blue and white ceramics.

First wave: 14th Century West Asia to East Asia

Originally from the lands that are present-day Iran, cobalt – a silvery, blue-gray metal ore – was traded to China during the 14th century. There, potters ground cobalt into a pigment, which could be painted directly onto the dry, yet pre-fired, white porcelain body. Once fired, the cobalt revealed its deep, rich blue color. The result was a type of ceramic known today as “blue and white.” Considered a valuable and rare luxury good, Chinese blue and white porcelain was exported globally through established trade channels like the Silk Road and maritime routes that connected the East with the West.

Pear-Shaped Bottle (Yuhuchun) with Banana-Leaf, Lotus Pond and Lotus Petal Motifs

Mandarin Duck Couple Water Dropper

Second wave: 16th Century East Asia to Europe

During the 16th century, the Portuguese established contact with China, beginning direct trade of blue and white porcelain to Europe. Like later revolutions in plastics, Chinese ceramics – which were more durable and had a slicker surface than European ceramics – aroused much curiosity when they began to reach the West. Initially, white porcelain decorated with blue cobalt oxide was the only type of Chinese porcelain known in Europe. Later, Dutch traders cornered the market importing expensive, more colorful Asian porcelains from Japan as well as China. Because of their popularity (including high prices paid for them), European potters sought to copy them using local materials and techniques. In Europe, the Dutch were the first to produce blue and white wares during the 17th century.

Perfume Fountain

Tulip Vase

Third wave: 17th Century European Innovations

Blue and white ceramics dominated European pottery from the mid-17th century and Chinese decorative motifs were frequently imitated. An increase in imports during the 17th century did nothing to temper demand and the taste for blue and white quickly became a mania. For this reason, European imitations, which at first slavishly copied well-known Chinese types, gradually introduced European shapes and subject matter.

Two-handled Vase


Chocolate Pot

Fourth wave: 18th and 19th Century Continuations

In Asia as in the West, the fashion for blue and white ceramics persisted well into the 18th and 19th centuries. In Korea, locally made blue and white wares were so highly valued, they were rarely intended for the export market as most were used domestically. The Korean court also limited imports of blue and white wares from neighboring China and Japan and regulated them according to sumptuary laws making them truly rarefied for the elite. Nonetheless, some Korean blue and white ceramics made their way to China and Japan. Meanwhile blue and white ceramics from China and Japan flooded global markets throughout Southeast, South, and West Asia, as well as Europe.

Moon Jar

Brush Pot Inscribed in Arabic Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest) with Bat

Fifth wave: Contemporary Connections

Today, many contemporary ceramic artists look to the past for inspiration and help us find relevancy in historic objects, as well as an understanding of the continuity of the human experience. The enthusiasm for and interest in blue and white ceramics has not waned and continues to be brought to the forefront through both contemporary ceramics and the wider design world.

Paul Scott