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
The wide mouth, narrow neck and swollen lower belly of this vase imitates earlier glass and metal forms that were more popular in West Asia than East Asia. Surprisingly, large numbers of vases with this shape were exported from China to other Asian regions during the relatively short-lived Yuan dynasty. The lotus pond and lotus petal decoration around the lower neck, belly and foot of the vase were all intended to signal purity. Early examples of Chinese blue and white porcelain are characterized by visible impurities in the cobalt oxide, which often burned to different shades of blue and gray during firing.
Pear-Shaped Bottle (Yuhuchun) with Banana-Leaf, Lotus Pond and Lotus Petal Motifs, about 1300, Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), unidentified Chinese artists. Porcelain with underglaze blue cobalt oxide. Gift of Bartlett G. Bretz and Olive Bretz Crawford in memory of their mother, Eunice Grippin Saunders Bretz, 1997.99
Mandarin Duck Couple Water Dropper
Mandarin Duck Couple Water Dropper, 15th-16th century, unidentified Vietnamese artists. Glazed stoneware with underglaze blue cobalt oxide. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Chester C. Brummett, 1976.310
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, 1700-1710, Chinese porcelain with underglaze blue cobalt oxide and French gilt bronze mounts, assembled in Paris, France. Eugenia Woodward Hitt Collection, 1991.22a-b
Tulip Vase, about 1693, De Griexe A factory (Netherlands, operated 1657-1818), period of Adriaen Kocks (Dutch, active 1689-1694, died 1701). Tin-glazed earthenware (Delft) with underglaze blue cobalt oxide. Museum purchase with funds provided by Dr. and Mrs. Frederick Baekeland, Daniel R. Bibb, Earl Buckman, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Blair Cox, Jr., the estate of Professor William J. Dorn, Robert C. and Thomas C. Ford, Robert Kaufman, Mrs. Katherine Meadow McTyeire, the estate of Sybil Noble Murray, Mrs. William M. Rogers, Louise Sapp, Robert Sistrunk, Dr. and Mrs. M. Bruce Sullivan, Robert Parks Thomason, and Dr. and Mrs. Bert Wiesel, by exchange, 2018.24a-b
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, 1708-1718, Peter Eggebrecht factory (operated about 1708-1718), Dresden, Germany. Tin-glazed earthenware (faience) with underglaze blue cobalt oxide. Museum purchase with funds provided by Eugenia Woodward Hitt, by exchange, 2019.68
Ewer, 1710-1720, Rouen, France. Tin-glazed earthenware (faience) with underglaze blue cobalt oxide. Museum purchase, 2000.1
Chocolate Pot, about 1750, Bow porcelain manufactory (operated 1747-1774), London, England, decoration based on a design by Frederik van Frijtom (Dutch, about 1632-1702). Soft-paste porcelain with underglaze blue cobalt oxide. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; purchase with funds provided by Catherine H. Collins, by exchange, AFI.22.2019a-b
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 with Vine and Wish-Granting Cloud Collar and Maritime Motifs, 18th century, Joseon period (1392-1910), unidentified Korean artists. Porcelain with underglaze blue cobalt oxide. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Estate of Carolyn Quinn, 2004.2
Brush Pot Inscribed in Arabic Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest) with Bat
Brush Pot Inscribed in Arabic Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest) with Bat, Cloud and Motifs Signifying “May you have good fortune,” 1864, Qing dynasty (1644-1912), unidentified Chinese artists. Porcelain with underglaze blue cobalt oxide. Gift of Thaddeus H. Crenshaw, 2002.58
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 (British, born 1953), Pipelines & Peltier, 2019, from the Scott’s Cumbrian Blue(s), New American Scenery series. In-glaze screen print on salvaged porcelain with pearlware glaze. Museum purchase T.2020.69