Metropolitan Museum - Ceramics
( Originally Published 1909 )
THE term Pottery used in its widest sense includes every production of the fictile art, and comprises all kinds of earthenware and stoneware, as well as porcelain, its highest achievement. The word Ceramics is said to be derived from the name of Keramos, the son of Bacchus and Ariadne, the prototype and protector of the potters' art.
The basis of all pottery is clay. This clay is shaped in moulds or "thrown " on the wheel (usually a block of gypsum) to make it adhere. When the clay is shaped and dry it is baked in a furnace, and when it comes out it is called biscuit. Dipped in a bath of glaze (composed of water in which the ground glaze is kept in suspension by constant agitation) the glaze that has formed a sediment all over the biscuit is melted or fused by a second passage through the fire.
The decorating is done before or after the glazing. In the majolicas of Italy and in some of the faience of France the decoration, which consists of different vitrifiable colours, is applied after the piece has come out of the bath containing the glaze. When applied after the glazing the piece is put back into the muffle and heated sufficiently to melt the glaze to absorb the colour. Pottery without glaze is called terra cotta. Majolica and some European faience have a thick opaque glaze. Persian faience, and German and English stoneware have a vitreous and heavy, transparent glaze. Pottery with thick opaque glaze came originally from the near-East. When the Moors came to Spain they brought with them the advanced method to decorate ware with effects of metallic iridescence, due to the partial reduction of the metallic oxides used as colours during their passage through the muffle.
The pieces made up to the latter part of the 2nd century are termed Siculo-Moresque, this method having been in practice in Sicily since 827 B. C., those made in Spain after the 2nd century are called Hispano-Moresque. The decorations of the palace of the Alhambra are among the finest productions of Malaga, where the best work was done. Later a factory was founded at Majorca, whence the name Majolica passed to Italy, in the northern part of which, in Tuscany, its manufacture reached great perfection, especially under the Medici.
In the cinque cento the progress of the Italian potters was remarkable. Such artists as Raphael made designs for and even painted on pottery.
Porcelain is the highest achievement of earthen-ware. It is particularly Chinese, even its English imitation being called "china."
All Chinese porcelain is essentially composed of two elements - the white clay or Kaolin, the unctuous and infusible element which gives plasticity to the paste, and the felspathic stone or petuntse, fusible at a high temperature, which gives transparency. The felspathic stone is a white compact rock of slightly grayish tinge. Powdered quartz and crystallized sands are often added to the two essential materials for coarser ware. This is said to be indispensable for the proper development of the single-coloured glazes.
The glaze (yu) of Chinese porcelain, applied after the first firing, is made of the same felspathic rock mixed with lime to increase its fusibility. The glaze may also be composed of pure pegmatite, finely crushed. The crackling of the glaze, covering the porcelain with a network of miniature cracks, is done not accidentally but by a careful process.
Porcelain may be divided into two classes 1. Hard paste, containing the two natural elements in the composition of the body and the glaze; and 2. Soft paste, where the body is an artificial combination of various materials, sand, lime and alkaline substances, agglomerated by the action of fire, in which the compound called frit has been used as a substitute for the felspathic rock.
No soft paste has ever been made in China. It was used in France before the ingredients of true porcelain were known, and its manufacture continued afterwards as pate tendre.
True hard paste porcelain must have a white, hard, translucent body, not to be scratched by steel, homogeneous, resonant and vitrified, exhibiting when broken a curved fracture of fine grain and brilliant aspect. If the paste is not translucent it is stoneware. If the paste is not vitrified it is terra cotta or faience.
The secret of the manufacture of this magnificent ware was first revealed to Europe by Pere d' Entrecolles, a Jesuit missionary, in 1512. Some thought that it was composed of bones, eggshells, fishscales and sundry other curious ingredients, which had to be buried for one hundred years. Wherefore Dr. Johnson derived the word porcelain from pour cent ans. The proper derivation, however, is from the Portuguese porcella, a small pig, also a shell, and the first cups which came from China, for their shell-like appearance, were called by that name.
Not until two centuries later (in 1711) did Johann Friedrich Bottger by accident discover the existence in Europe of Kaolin. This discovery led to the erection of a factory at Meissen. A disloyal workman took the secret to Vienna, in 1720, where the Royal Factory was established. The factories of Meissen and of Vienna have always been noted for the manufacture of small groups of figures known as biscuits de Saxe.
The collections of Ceramics in the Metropolitan Museum cover well-nigh every branch of the potter's art, from its earliest products to the latest creations of faience.
The first purchase, which started the department, was made in 1879, of the collection of Mr. S. P. Avery. Many other collections and gifts have enriched the department, so that specimens from all parts of the earth may be studied. The crown of all, however, is that marvellous collection of Chinese Porcelains which Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan has loaned here, which is second to none in the rarity of its specimens and their beauty and splendour.
The most practicable division in which the collections may be discussed, is a topographical one, which is more or less followed in the arrangement of the Museum's examples. The Chinese section will first attract our attention.
According to legendary records porcelain was already manufactured in China under Huang-ti, who commenced his reign in 2697 B. C. This is, however, believed to have been only earthenware, possibly glazed. Real porcelain was not manufactured until the Han dynasty, which held the throne of China from 202 B. C. to 220 A. D. It reached a notable degree of excellence under the T'ang dynasty, which ruled from 618 to 906, when porcelain received its popular name of Yao. The earliest porcelain extant dates from the Sung dynasty, 960-1279. It is invariably in monochrome, either of uniform or mottled tint, or blue and white.
After an interval of retrogression under the Yuan dynasty, 1280-1368, we find the art making great progress under the Ming dynasty, 1368-1644. Special attention to decoration in blue under the glaze was given to work done in the first half of the 15th century, which work has a brilliancy of colour never afterwards quite equalled. At the same time a brilliant red colour was introduced, while in the latter half of the century the use of enamel colours commenced.
Under the last Manchu dynasty the art was again revived about 1700. In 1727 Nien-Hsi-Yao became the maker of the famous Nien porcelain, graceful in form and of fine workmanship. Articles of small dimensions such as snuffbottles, wine-cups, vessels for washing pencils, etc., were also made of an opaque, white vitreous ware, decorated with a brilliancy of colour which makes the work of this period the most highly prized.
In all the centuries in which this art has been practised in China, there are some half dozen periods in which the art flourished preeminently, and whose products may be considered to excel. These periods were, Ch' eng Hua (1465-1487), Wan Li (1573-1619), K' ang Hsi (1662-1722), Yung Ch' eng (1723-1735), Ch' ien Lung (1736-1795), Tao Kuang (1821-1850).
Of the old Sung and Ming porcelains which survive the greater proportion belong to a class which is known as Celadon. The name is used to describe both a class and a special colour, a peculiar sea-green, produced by the introduction of a small quantity of protoxide of iron into the glaze. It owed its origin to an attempt to copy the much prized green jade. Marco Polo, writing in the 13th century of the wonders and beauties of the Court of Kublai Khan, speaks of this beautiful green porcelain.
The colours used in China are powdered glazes made with a lead flux. They were five in number, intending to signify the five jewels of the Buddhist paradise: a deep purplish blue, derived from cobalt and manganese silicates; a rich green, from copper persilicate ; a deep yellow, from antimony ; a sang de boeuf red, from copper mixed with a deoxidizing flux; and a charming turquoise blue, obtained from copper combined with nitre.
The so-called " hawthorn " porcelains are divided into three groups according to colour: blue, black and green. Only one red hawthorn is known, which is in the Morgan collection. There is no hawthorn, however, in the decoration of any of them, the flower after which it is called, being the wild-plum blossom. The Chinese dark coloured, reddish-yellow stoneware is known by the Portuguese name boccaro, the brown variety as Kuang yao.
The study of the decorations on Chinese porcelains is of farreaching significance. The characters, personages, birds and beasts are strange symbols of mystic meaning. We note for instance three kinds of dragons, the Lung of the sky, whose office is to guard and support the mansions of the gods, and who is the peculiar symbol of the Emperor, the son of heaven; the li of the sea; and the kiau of the marshes. Often a chilin is seen — a rhinoceros with head, feet and legs like a deer, which is the emblem of good government and length of days. The feng-huang is a strange bird, with a long flexible neck, and is emblematic of immortality, like the phoenix. The tortoise, knei, denotes strength and longevity, the carp, literary perseverance which attains to fame.
It is impossible to single out any of these ceramic treasures of the Orient in the Morgan collection above another. The general remarks that have been put down may in some way guide, and they may, even but poorly, illustrate these delicate resonant bodies which display the marvellous skill of the potters of Cathay.
In the Japanese section we observe the distinction between the ceramics of the Flowery and of the Middle Kingdom. Blue enters into all, or nearly all, of the variegated glazes of the Chinese, the dominant shade of the Japanese resembles either a ruddy amber or a rich, translucent treacle colour. There are also specimens of the golden-brown glazes of Zeze (Omi), the lustrous amber glazes of Takatori (Chikuzen), and the ceramics of Seto, Shino, and Satsuma.
The latter is among the best known of the Japanese wares. It is of a creamy-white paste, soft enough to be easily bitten by a file. Imitations are made at Otta, Awata, and at Kioto. Kioto gives also its name to an inferior ware, though pleasant in texture, which is extensively made for the export trade. The Kutani ware made in the province of Kaga is either red and gold or green and yellow. The Hitzen ware, also called the Azita and the Imari — the names being those of the province, of the factory, and of the port whence it is exported — has blue under the glaze and red upon the glaze.
The pottery of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks has already been discussed in the chapter on Antiquities. We turn, therefore, to the ceramics of the Near-East, where we find the Mesopotamian or Persian ware that began with the 9th century. It has lustrous charm of colour, a smooth and flexible sense of form, and naive presentation of subject illustration. The Rakka ware — bowls of a rich, iridescent greenish-blue, and decorated with arabesques, floral designs or inscriptions — is the oldest ware in the history of the mediaeval ceramics of nearer Asia.
The highest development in this ware of Rey, or Rhazes, not far from Teheran, dates from about 1200. Figure representations are introduced, together with the customary conventional ornament. A faience cup with Cufic inscription dates from the 13th century ; while a green and black jug, and blue and black bowls are a century later.
Veramin, known especially for its beautiful lustre tiles, succeeded at the end of the 13th century to Rey's place. These tiles are of two types, in lustre, and in unglazed colours. The decorations show the narrow range of the emotional life of the Persians, the pleasure of combat and the pleasure of rest thereafter, with music, wine, poetry and companionship: Three panels, consisting of 112 enamelled tiles, formed part of a dado in the Palace of Forty Columns at Ispahan, from which building we have already seen some lacquered doors. The figure decoration is the usual scene of gallant life, painted by a Persian Watteau, who knew his Hafiz and his Omar. Two Sultanabad mural tiles and several well-preserved bowls and vases are much earlier in date, while the continuance of Persian faience is shown in a Koubatcha dish (Turkish) and a Bokhara plate of the late 18th century.
The art was carried by the Moors to Spain, whence we possess many Hispano-Moresque tiles, plaques and plates. Some rude Alhambra graffiti and later articles indicate the paucity of the style of decoration, which consists principally of scrolls, arabesques, borders, and large and small mock-Arabic inscriptions. There is the " Spur " band design ; the " flowers and leaves " pattern, on dotted ground with delicate spiral stems intermingled with bryony leaves ; the " gadroon " border, and so on. Retaining most of the progenitive art are the Spanish lustre tiles of the 16th century.
The development of Ceramic art in Italy came through the earlier wares of Syria, Persia and the lustre wares of the Saracens. Most characteristic of its products has been the Majolica ware, a species of fine pottery clay, thickly and opaquely enamelled, and glazed with a plumbiferous glaze. Andrea della Robbia added oxide of tin to the glaze, producing a beautiful white, durable, stanniferous glazing. Later Georgio, by a combination of mineral colours, produced fine iridescent ruby and gold tints. The Marchese Genori, at Doccia, near Florence, makes majolica by the same processes that his ancestors have used for three centuries. He has also the old moulds of the old royal factory at Naples, known as " Capo di Monte," which ware, in sculpturesque high relief, is locally very popular. In this section there are, besides the many examples of pure majolica, large plateaux (bacili), decorated with scenes from biblical history or classical mythology, with amatory figures, mottoes or coats-of-arms, that were solely used for embellishment of the sideboards or wall of palace or monastery. Diruta plates show decided Moorish influence. Further we note Gubbio lustred ware of the 16th century, and a small Caffaggiolo plate embellished with a grotesque de-sign in polychrome against a deep blue ground. Also a deep blue Faenza (Casa Pirota) plate, decorated in various enamels with a central coat-ofarms supported by putti, and surrounded by a border of grotesque designs in that exceedingly decorative style of enamelling commonly known as sopra azzuro; a pair of richly lustred Gubbio dishes (tazze) of the raised paste variety, from about 1535 ; an interesting pair of Caltagirone (Sicilian) vases ; and an Urbino plate representing the Rape of Proserpina, decorated in the richest colours of the factory, heightened by an over-glaze of mother-of-pearl lustre. A plate by reason of its Raphaelesque decoration is attributed to the hand of Orazio Foulana. A valuable plaque of Capo di Monte represents " Ceres instructing in the Arts of Husbandry."
Later Italian artists found their way to France, some with the Medici, under whose auspices a factory of earthenware was opened at Gien, which still exists, using the three towers of the crest of that family as a trademark. A factory at Nevers imitated the wares of Venice, particularly those of Oriental character, with lapis lazuli grounds, veined with white and ornamented with grotesques in yellow. Factories, of whose products examples are found in this section, were also established at Lille, Apry, Rouen, Sceaux and Limoges.
Among the names identified with French pottery none is better known than that of Bernard de Palissy, whose personality is as well marked in the history of earthenware as Benvenuto Cellini's in that of metal work. His peculiar style consisted in general in attempts to copy natural objects, to decorate his wares. The glaze on his pieces is extremely brilliant, whereby his startling facsimiles of fish, coral, seaweed, shells, crabs, etc., actually look " wet." The strong enamels he used for grounds and for painting the backs of his pieces are called jaspes, on account of their similarity in colour to jasper and green marble. Several plates of this famous ware are shown.
The rarest of all French earthenware is called Henry Deux, or faience d'Oiron. The paste is a pale yellow, having a soft creamy tone. The decoration consists of brilliantly coloured earths or pastes, which are baked into spaces cut away in the clay forming the ground work of the pieces, and may be compared to champ leve enamel. A few years ago a piece was sold at a sale at Chris-tie's, which was attended by representatives of all the great European museums and of the wealthiest collectors to battle for this piece of Faience d' Oiron. It brought a little less than £10,000. So far as known there are but 53 pieces in existence, of which Mr. Morgan owns one of the finest, a circular salt-cellar.
In 1786 Kaolin was discovered at Limoges, where a factory with royal privileges had been in existence since 1664. The manufacture of French porcelain became then possible, not only at Limoges but also at Sevres, whither the St. Cloud factory, organized in 1702, had been transferred in 1756.
The Sevres factory is a government institution, as is well known, and its products originally could not be purchased but were used to furnish the royal palaces, or as presents to friends of the State. Since the Second Empire private individuals have been allowed to purchase these products, but they are never sold to the trade. The Sevres which are found in the crockery shops are the blancs, or undecorated pieces. In these the usual mark S, accompanied by the last two figures of the year in which they were made, is cancelled by a sharp cut across it. These pieces are decorated by outsiders in a manner that closely resembles the real Sevres, and often the cut across the mark is filled up. The genuine ware has, however, also the guilders' and the painters' marks. Several examples of this magnificent ware are in the collection.
A peculiarly French feature in ceramics is the so-called pate-sur-date, which consists in figures modelled in low relief in transparent enamels on coloured grounds.
The original hard stoneware of Germany and Flanders is known as gres de Flanders. The decoration consists either of lines cut into the paste which, retaining more glaze than the flat surfaces, appear darker after the firing (which mode is called graffito), or small lumps or beads of coloured enamel are fused on the surface of the glaze, termed jewelled. When these two are combined it is called decoration en camaieu.
After the discovery by Bottger that the white clay or Kaolin used by the Chinese was to be found in Saxony, European porcelain has attained more and more perfection, although it cannot be compared with the Oriental products in translucency and resonance.
German porcelain figures were made at Meissen by Kandler, and at Nymphenburg by Bastilli. At first these were uncoloured. Kandler was unsurpassed in the geniality and strength of modelling, Bastilli supreme in his expression of elegance, temperament and plastic grace. Two Nymphenburg figures, a lady and a gentleman in Chinese costumes, seated on conventional rococo scrolls, are truly lifelike. An example of the Dresden ware of the Marcolini period (about 1796), may also be seen.
The Hochst porcelain factory, in Nassau, turned out remarkably fine work. A group of Hochst porcelain, " Sylvia," two figures, delightfully modelled and coloured, is a rare example. Only one other copy is known to exist, which is in the Louvre. A " Royal Berlin " vase, and Old Royal Berlin " platters and cups, a salt-glazed jug, and steins from Bayreuth are representative of the work of the German potter.
A piece of " Copenhagen" is not frequently met with. It is a hard paste porcelain, made since 1760, having for its mark three waving or rippling lines, supposed to represent the waves of the sea.
In Holland stone ware was soon replaced by the imitation of Chinese " blue and white," which the Dutch traders were the first to import from the Orient. Delftware is well-known, but here only represented by a few Delft tulip vases, plates and figurines. There is, however, a fairly complete collection of Dutch tiles.
While the English at first imported their pottery, the stoneware of Staffordshire soon assumed national characteristics. Examples are found in the Museum of old English stoneware, Stafford-shire Chinaware, printed ware, Lustre, Leeds salt-glaze ware, and English jasper and granite ware by Adams, Palmer, Turner and Wedgwood. Jas-per is an opaque, impure variety of quartz, of yellow, red and some dull colours. Among the Wedgwood pieces is a square blue and white jasper pedestal, dating from 1775, with ornamentation after designs by Flaxman, consisting of rams' heads and griffins, and gracefully modelled figures of Juno, Ceres, Peace and Plenty. Examples of the rare green and white, and blue and white jasper are exemplified in medallions and plaques, made by Adams, the contemporary and imitator of Wedgwood.
Minton and Copeland have made what is called English majolica, which is harder both in substance and colour than the Italian.
After the introduction of porcelain into England its factories soon became famous. Among the best known English porcelains is the Lowestoft, a hard-paste made in Suffolk from 1757 to 1804, which is one of the most admired, with rich borders in which festoons are a common detail.
The Worcester is a soft-paste made in 1751, noted for a peculiar mottled quality of the blue produced by firing. It has been called Royal Worcester since a visit of George III to the factory in 1788. The marks are a crescent, or some seal marks copied from Chinese porcelains. Later a combination of four W's was used. The Derby is a soft-paste porcelain made since 1751, very trans-lucent, and the blue very brilliant. It comes in unglazed biscuit ware, in figures and in groups. The letter D and the name of the potter " Blow " were used as a mark, while a crown has been added since 1830. The Chelsea, a soft-paste porcelain made since 1735 is the most admired of the old English porcelains. The Bow, made at Stratford-le-Bow near London, is perhaps the earliest. Its mark is a bent bow with an arrow on the string.
The Swansea, made from 1814 to 1820 is ranked by some as the most perfect porcelain in England. Its mark is the word " Swansea," combined with a trident, or two tridents crossed. In 1710 Wedgwood started his celebrated factory, which later produced some of the finest porcelain ware; his relief-plaques being especially famous. The work by Spode, Davenport, and Copeland is equally renowned.
A few blue-glazed plates are the only examples of the work of the American potter, whose acknowledged superiority in modern ceramics is not demonstrated in the Museum collections.