A Collection of Chinese Porcelains.

Harper's new monthly magazine 419, 1885

A Collector of porcelains is a person to be tolerated, if not to be sympathized with. If his specialty be the earlier porcelains of China, that fact is much in his favor. He has had for comrades princes and duchesses, writers like Elia, who would go without a dinner to buy a saucer, and artists like Fortuny. He is not extravagant though he put half his fortune or his yearly savings into this fragile material, nor is he open to the charge of senseless luxury; for his investment is secure, and ranged along the top shelves of his bookcase it is visible and tangible, pleasant to sight and touch, serving to relieve the eye from the tyranny of print, and the mind from the weariness of uninteresting work.

For color in all its varieties and combinations, there is nothing of man's creation to compare with Chinese porcelains of good quality. From a period as remote as that of Charlemagne down to quite modern times, the glazing and firing of pottery has been a fine art in China.

Vases have been made there that it is no sacrilege to compare, as to form, with those of the Greeks, and as to color, with anything that is finest. The Chinese themselves liken their best pieces to jade, and everybody knows what a value that stone possesses in their eyes. They have copied in porcelain the forms and decorations of their prehistoric bronze and golden vases, and they rate the copies as highly as the originals. They have lavished on them such painting as the monks of the Middle Ages put on vellum, or preRaphaelite painters on canvas or wooden panels. Yet in China, where all this ornament has a meaning not obvious to us, perfectly plain specimens of good color are paid for as dearly as any. They prize the incomparable gamut of colors, including all tints, all tones, all nuances, which their fathers have produced. They attribute the perfect success of a piece to a sort of spirit of the kiln protecting it and ordering the firing to the best result.

There is nothing garish about these porcelains. Their beauty is of the kind that is truly a joy forever. Their color is as gentle as it is powerful, as rich in each example as it is varied in a collection. Of red there may be the gorgeous sang de bœuf, ranging from deep Tyrian purple to bright crimson; the splendid coral reds, sometimes, as a last stroke of good fortune in the firing, showing the gold in their coloring matter reduced to the metallic state, or gleaming in the light with all the tints of the rainbow; the rust red of iron, one of the most ancient colors; a vermilion produced from iron; and most valuable of all, though modern, the beautiful tints of rose, due to the chloride of gold. Some French writers make these last into a "family" by themselves, as they also make those pieces that are covered wholly or in part with green, whether it be olive, or "apple green," or the green of the upper surface of the camellia leaf. Many of these are found on very old pieces, and are iridescent in a high degree. The various céladons tinged with brown or gray form another variety. Even in black and white there are splendid tones, hard to match — mirror black, ivory white, blanc de Chine, dull black in imitation of some European wares, but far superior to them.

To find anything to compare with these triumphs of the ceramic art we must go to Nature, to her corals, jaspers, agates, opal, onyx, and lapis lazuli, or look for analogous tints and textures in the rinds of fruits and the shining surfaces of leaves. Also — and this opens up a field for many curious conjectures as to what the Chinese artists had in mind as types of the colors they wished to see on their vases and cups and jars when drawn from the kiln — many of their superb tones remind one distinctly of articles of food. The very names given at hazard by European collectors would seem to indicate a belief that these queer people had strictly associated with all their notions of color the pleasures of the palate. A bottle of sang de bœuf is really colored like the rich juice from a round of beef; a specimen of "mirror black," especially if it show around the edge a partially glazed rim of creamy brown, brings to mind Sir Arthur Guinness's celebrated stout. There are soft white glazes like "congealed fat"; and we dare say a specimen may yet be found, an antique vase, fine, rich, and distinguished, a gem among the precious vases of rare jade, as say the inscriptions, which in its crackling brown and oily glaze shall reproduce the appetizing exterior of that first roast pig so lusciously described by Charles Lamb. It is mere fact that there are glazes imitating the color of a mule's lung and that of a horse's liver, which are unmistakably articles of Chinese diet; and there are, to turn to comparisons less gross, tea-color glazes, and rice-color, and plum and peach color, and the apple green before mentioned, and mustard yellow, and that white that De Goncourt compares to a species of blanc-mange, and of which he praises the unctuous feel. Apart from color, the character of the material is such that the Chinese themselves, wheel referring to it, speak of the glaze as the "flesh" of the piece, and the paste as its "bone."

But even yet the list of colors is not exhausted, for there are the violets, old and new, blues of cobalt, turquoise, ultramarine, lavender, clair de lune, and "blue of the sky after rain." There are factitious jade and imitations of jasper, chalcedony, and colored marble, and pieces streaked or seamed with different colors, or clouded with several shades of the one, flambé or soufflé. There are, besides, the several kinds of crackle, each of which has an influence on any color in connection with which it may be found, and there is the imitation crackle on blue jars of the "hawthorn" pattern, which, with perhaps more reason, is also said to be an imitation of a mass of fish eggs or of frog spawn.

The quality, obtained by a hundred different expedients, which, even more than the fullness and richness of the color, makes the surface of these porcelains superior to any other artificial coloring, tempts the pen not only to describe it in words, but to represent it in black and white. Whoever has taken the pains to analyze his color sensations knows how much his pleasure in this kind is due to gradations, tonings, markings, and cloudings, which are essentially variations of darkness or of light. It is the glory of these Chinese ceramists that not only is their red as truly red as a stick of sealing-wax or a pomegranate flower, but that it is comparable rather to the latter, being of fine texture and of many degrees of depth. of many shades and varieties running into one another. Hence it is not useless, on the score of color even, to illustrate in black and white Chinese "solid-color" pieces.

Of the antique white porcelains so sought after by the old Spanish collectors there is a considerable number in the collection. The little oval vase (in the group here shown), of as beautiful a shape as anything Greek, and of a matter that deserves to take a place with ivory and snow, milk and pearls and lily petals, is decorated under the glaze with peonies and flies incised in the paste, but so delicately that they can only be seen when carefully looked for.

The history of the manufacture of porcelain in China, far from displaying the immobility and the tyrannical rule of precedent and tradition that one would expect, shows a strong and pretty even current of progress from simple forms and decorations of few colors to the greatest elaborateness and richness of design, and the greatest perfection of material.

There were certain stages in this slow development, lasting from the era of Charlemagne until little over a century ago, when the processes and methods of ornamentation known at the time were brought to their highest perfection before some new discovery or some unlooked-for failure of supplies occasioned the rise of a new style. The animals of King-te-chin, the seat of the great imperial manufactory instil it was destroyed during the Tae-ping rebellion, are our chief source of information about these ups and downs of the art. The French translation by M. Stanislaus Julien enables us to follow the Chinese author from the epoch of the dynasty of Souy, A.D. 581-618, when it is probable that the first true porcelains were made, down to that of the emperors Kienlong, 1723-96. During this time, divided by French writers into five distinct periods, but three remarkable changes of style have taken place. While the first lasted the porcelains were either white or of a single color, such as would stand the greatest heat of the furnace, or were decorated with blue on the biscuit, and afterward glazed with a transparent white glaze. During the second (Tehing-hoa) period, 1465-1567, the enamel colors of what the French call the old green family appeared, and a failure of the fine quality of cobalt relied on up to this for decorations necessitated much experimenting for the purpose of discovering a substitute, or of making the best use of the grayish cobalt that was obtainable in combination with other colors, yellow, green, and violet, iron red, often lively in tone, and black for outlines and details. Toward the end of the period a new supply of fine cobalt was obtained, but it failed again at the commencement of the third period, which, nevertheless, was the greatest, 1567-1723. A great number of new colors were discovered during this time, and every method of painting on porcelain, under and over glaze, in thick and thin color, and for every degree of heat in the firing, was practiced. Egg-shell porcelains, those with rose-color entering into the decoration, or with gold, are not of earlier date than this; but they may, especially if of little artistic merit, be later, as from this time the decadence of the art has been rapid and unchecked.

Although it is known that such and such colors and modes of decoration were not in use before certain dates, it would be to little purpose to speculate on the exact age of any particular specimen of Chinese porcelain. It is safe to assert of any good piece that it is older than the present century. It may be held as certain that a rose-coloredored vase, or one into the decoration of which that color enters, can not have been made longer ago than 1690, while a piece decorated with blue and white may be of the time of the emperor King-te, who reigned for three years, from 4.D.1004 to 1007. If a jar should be painted with personages wearing the pig-tail, it is not more than two hundred and fifty years old, that appendage having been introduced by the Tartar conquerors; but if the personages represented wear long robes, both men and women, and if the males wear square black head-gear, then it may be of very high antiquity. The Chinese, however, have at all times delighted in reproducing the best efforts of former periods, and have, as a matter of course, and without dishonest intent, copied marks, dates, handling, and everything. Chinese collectors have been in the habit of paying as much for a good copy as for an authenticated original. A European or American collector must therefore be content to do as they do, and class a piece, not as having been made under such or such an emperor or dynasty, though the inscription may state as much, but as being of such a style. Still, taken in this way, a collection may be made a fairly complete and very interesting index to the history of the art and of the peculiar civilization of the Chinese.

The very oldest porcelains, it is likely, were white, either plain or ornamented with engravings in the paste, or with a relief obtained by pressing the paste into similar engravings in wood. The collection contains no specimen of the archaic type with ornaments derived from the prehistoric vases of gold and bronze, with distorted human faces and stiffly designed characters, reminding one of Aztec sculptures. That which has the most antique appearance, a little heart-shaped vase, is ornamented with drawings in several shades of rich blue, of other vases, pi-tongs, and so forth, of the primitive style. It is an exquisite little object though, with a clear, soft, and even white glaze, and the boldness and skillful distribution of the decoration is beyond all praise. It bears one of those series of "six marks" which are supposed to distinguish the manufactures of the later times of the Ming emperors, and which read, "Made from the antique at the house where they practice the virtues," or something of the sort. A little flattened bottle is probably of the same age, though of a later style. It is completely covered with minute chrysanthemum flowers and leaves splendidly drawn in excellent blue under a clear and shining glaze.

The peculiar fish-egg shading of the blue grounds of old "hawthorn" jars was practiced, so the Chinese chronicler translated by Julien tells us, at a very remote period. Imitations of the best specimens existing at the time were made at King-te-chin under the Mongol dynasty of Yuen, A. D. 1260-1368. The blue "hawthorn" jar here shown is, most likely, of a still later period. The drawing and composition of the branches of plum blossoms show facility of a kind that is not attained to at a very early date in the history of any art. The blue of the ground is deep and pure cobalt of an infinity of shadings, and the glaze is rich and transparent. The ground is carved in cloud-like forms across the branches, separating them from one another, and the management of those clouds of cellular substance and of the twigs that seem to spring out of them is magnificent. The affair is of a gravity, a force, an earnestness, that might make it the achievement of a lifetime, like the suppression of a rebellion or the gaining of a Chinese degree. It is technically excellent in too many ways to belong even to the culminating era of a primitive art. It is probably of the classic time of the end of the Ming dynasty.

Of the examples just described all but a few pieces belong in an important particular to the second class of decorations, those painted either its transparent glaze or in color mixed with thin paste on biscuit. True examples of the earliest style are painted or colored, if at all, on the crude clay before firing — a manner in which drawings can be executed only in blue and red. Applied upon biscuit, some mixed with the paste, others, as the violet, used thin and pure, all the colors anciently known entered into the first style of paintings in polychrome. These are what M. Jacquemart has classed as vieille famale vole. "Of these colors," says Du. Sartel, "the green, brown, yellow, grayish-violet, approach the enamels employed for colored grounds on biscuit; others, whirls complete the palette, are iron red, black, and exceptionally blue. Paintings of this sort, known in China before those over glaze, are seldom found except upon pieces of grotesque form and different from ordinary types. Such are those vases elliptical in shape, four-sided, or with sharp edges; tea-pots in the form of animals or bundles of bamboo; platters of eccentric contours; grimacing chimeras; personages of whom the head and the hands remain in biscuit — all decorated over the greater part of their surface with green, yellow, or violet, with reserves painted in the other colors of this restricted palette with animals, flowers and other objects. These porcelains have a mat aspect, which has caused them to be wrongly considered as of second quality. They are, on the contrary, very remarkable, as much on account of their fine and closegrained though' grayish paste as because of the extreme rarity of their forms, their perfect execution, and the harmonious calm of their paintings. So, despite the temporary and unjust disfavor into which they fell, they have quickly reconquered their place in collections, where they are now classed and considered as among the most curious productions of the ceramic art of the extreme Orient."

There are four or five painted pieces in this collection which come under the above description. One of them is a superb black "hawthorn" vase (page 684). Its colors are black, dull violet, yellow (in the birds), and green. The green and black are strongly iridescent. The markings and outlines of the branches and flowers are in a thin, transparent violet laid on with a touch at once cleats and flowing. The slaty rocks and the grass at the foot of the vase are drawn with equal sharpness, and the whole has the brilliance of a water-color in transparent tints.

The final development of the art took place during the last reigns of the Ming dynasty, 1644-1723. A great many new colors were invented, especially the rose red of chloride of gold, several new yellows. carmine-purple, opaque white, and others, used afterward too liberally in the crowded decorations of the decadence. Kept within proper bounds, these new tints give a charming air of gayety to the delicate paintings, whether of ornament, or flowers and birds and insects, or scenes from history and romance, in which they are found.

The vase with the curious picture of a Chinese lion bearing flowers to a dignified person in long robes, behind whom an attendant is holding a fan, is covered. except for this medallion and one like it on the opposite side, with a ground of pale rose on a slightly roughened surface. The bright colors of the elegant conventional ornaments are batched one over another in the manner of good Middle Age illumination.

There are several examples of the decline brought about by European intercourse, large vases, crowded with little figures, garden scenes, pavilions, in the medallions, and with peonies, birds, butterflies, bats, dragons, monsters of all sorts, scrolls, conventionalized foliage, and diapers, in the borders which surround them, and which represent the general ground of the older vases.

Toward the end of the seventeenth century the potters of Rouen and of Delft found it necessary to protect themselves against the Oriental invasion which at that time threatened extinction to their trade, and could think of nothing better than to copy as well as they might the Chinese designs and manner of working. In tins way they gained a degree of skill that many of them afterward used in turning the more slightly decorated Chinese porcelains among the constantly increasing importations into something like the more richly decorated and therefore costlier ones. At first their object in doing this may have been to experiment on the hard Chinese paste before trying the same colors on the soft false porcelain that had already been invented in France; but their attempts were not long confined, if they ever were, to this justifiable end. There soon grew up a new industry, which had for its purpose to enrich, to suit the taste of purchasers, those pieces of Chinese ware of which the decoration was considered ton simple. In the presence of a collection of veritable Chinese works of high class it is easy to detect the halting and heavy touch, the pale coloring tending to brown and purple, and the predilection for rounded forms and effects of aerial perspective of the European artist. The painting on the jar numbered 2 in the above group, however, is not to be despised. With all its clumsy Chinese-Dutch drawing it has qualities of tone never attained to by a Mongolian, and which in a slight degree recall the coloring of Teniers and the other great Dutchmen.

The European influence was not at first entirely for evil. Those porcelains that are distinguished as "artistic," like the liver-colored bowl above (7), and the large vase with bunches of fruit and leaves (1), and another with leaves and birds and roc-kwork, betray an intention to suit European tastes. There is evidence that all of this "rose family," vases with opaque enamels, and cups and saucers of egg-shell with translucid paintings of scenes of everyday life, in those tender pale greens and violet carmines that design on the white ground the oval faces and long robes of slender. almondeyed young Chinese ladies, were made not for home use, but for sale to the "sea devils," as the European merchants were politely called.

From the time of their first appearance in Europe, princes and duchesses, farmers-general and capitalists, have competed against one another for the possession of these charming productions of the land of the rising sun, but it is only within recent years that a collection like this present one could have been formed. Marguerite d'Autriche, Charles V., and other royal and princely collectors of old times had but a few specimens of white or blue and white. The great collectors of a later time, the Count de Fonspertuis, M. De Jullienne, the Duchesse de Mazarin, had little else but pieces of an ordinary character, which, nevertheless, sold for as much as pictures by Raphael and Murillo. Statuettes of cats and dogs, figurines (magots), and vases of the decadence called "pagodes" or "mandarins," were the important pieces of those times. It is doubtful if any of these bearers of the standard of la haute curiosite could feast their eyes upon such an assemblage of fine and rare specimens as can Mr. Charles A. Dana, whose collection it is that I have been describing.

The miserable opium wars of France and England against the Chinese, and the robbery of the summer palace of the emperor, resulted in the introduction into Europe of fine porcelains of a sort theretofore almost unknown, some of which have since found their way to this country. The Taeping rebellion, which, in destroying the city of King-to-chin, inhabited by nearly two hundred thousand potters and decorators, gave a blow to the manufacture from which it can never recover, at the same time threw thousands of fine pieces, long guarded by wealthy Chinese among their treasures, into the hands of dealers. This source is believed to be now quite exhausted. Our American collectors are dependent on the sales that take place from time to time in Europe, whence piece after piece has been brought over here, until now, in the opinion of one of the largest dealers, but little more can be looked for from that direction. Small vases, only a few inches in diameter, are held at hundreds of dollars; pieces of any size, and showing a particularly beautiful coloring, or rich iridescence, or excellent modelling, or fine painting, may be worth thousands. It is not without reason that they are so prized, for in workmanship, in material, in taste, and artistic invention, they are better than the best specimens of Caucasian art. A Persian water bottle, on the one hand, and some specimens of fine old Sevres, in Mr. Dana's possession, on the other, are among the best things of the kind that our race can boast of. The Persian piece, of coarse paste-imitation porcelain, made without kaolin, and painted in the careless, blotty manner characteristic of their work, can be put beside the Chinese specimens, though distinctly of lower type than they; but the Sevres, and the English and the Saxon wares, can not bear comparison with it. The Japanese artists of today, stimulated by the demand that exists for work that shall be frankly decorative, and free and artistic as well, and of which they only seem to have preserved the secret, are turning out work in some respects as meritorious as the old Chinese. But though Japanese art is founded on the Chinese, the disposition of the people, gayer, lighter, more impressionable than that of their teachers, shows itself in all that they do. Their work lacks the solidity, the seriousness, the importance, of the Chinese. It may be more amusing, but it is not so deeply interesting. It may be brighter, but not so rich; cleverer, but not as elegant.

Some old Hizen porcelains and some uncommonly good examples of modern Japanese ware make a little collection apart on Mr. Dana's shelves. Clever as are the latter, and remarkable for the strength of their blue and red decorations as are the former, their inferiority to the Chinese wares can not for a moment be disputed. Compare the slapdash execution of the tall Japanese vase in the group on preceding page (5), with its whirl of spray and cloud, and writhing dragon in high and sharp relief, its poor contour, and its haphazard spotting of dark blue and white and gold, with the refined drawing, the smooth luxurious glaze, and the exquisite and original shape of the Chinese piece behind it. The latter is masterly, quiet, decorous; the former, with all its wonderful cleverness, its movement, its happy-go-lucky composition, is a mere toy beside it. The more dignified dark brown jar (3), with figures and tree branches in imitation of wood-carving, serves even better to show up the superiority of the old Chinese work; but no Chinese or other work of the present day is equal to it. Its maker, a Japanese lady, is still living.

The Chinese spirit, materialistic, rationalistic, describable in the same terms as the matter in which it has loved to work, dense, fine,and polished, has enshrined itself in these objects. It has found in their decoration its best means of expression.

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