Images and text are best viewed on a wide screen.
To learn more about the origins of porcelain in China and its cultural and economic impact upon Europe, click on
By the 1500s in Europe, Chinese export porcelain had become a symbol of exquisiteness,
and exotic beauty.
At a time when the average household had very little furnishings and tableware, few could afford the extravagance of porcelain. People ate from trenchers – round slices cut horizontally from the top or bottom of a crusty old loaf of bread – and drank from cups made from horn, ash wood, or earthenware. Meals were communal so that bowls, plates, jugs, utensils could be shared.
Circumstances changed. Expanding trade and merchant guilds created a European middle class who wanted to emulate the dining habits of the wealthy.
So much money was spent toward the purchase of tens of millions of porcelain wares made in China that economists warned of a deteriorating European economy. Was divine intervention the answer?
The first missionaries from the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, arrived in China in the mid-1500s. Determined to spread Christianity, these highly educated priests introduced Western science, mathematics, astronomy, and visual arts to the Chinese imperial court and established a cultural and philosophical exchange with Chinese scholars. The Jesuits became fluent in Chinese, accommodated to Chinese culture, and made converts by connecting Confucianism to Christian beliefs.
In 1698, the French East India Company, a competitor of the Dutch and British trading companies in Asia, and the French king sponsored a Jesuit mission to China. Thirty-five-year-old Père (Father) François Xavier d’Entrecolles arrived in Jingdezhen in 1700 with a mission made clear by his superiors: while spreading the teachings of the Church to the porcelain workers, determine how porcelain was made and send the findings to Paris.
D’Entrecolles’s first letter reached Louis-François Orry, the treasurer of the Jesuit mission in India and China, in 1712. He described the city of Jingdezhen, how the components of porcelain were mined and prepared, the division of labor for creating, kneading, molding, and firing the clay mixture, how extra-large pieces were created, the types of kilns, decorative techniques, and the unique beauty of black porcelain and pierced-openwork porcelain.
There were other anecdotes –
how new porcelain could be made to look old by covering it with meat soup and then leaving it in a sewer for a month, and –
the use of porcelain cats to frighten rats.
D’Entrecolles received a reply that attempts to make porcelain using the described methods were unsuccessful; sent further details.
By the time his second and final letter arrived in Paris in 1722, Jingdezhen was the largest industrial complex in the world. Three-thousand kilns were scattered throughout the city and nearby villages. (Black and white photos of Jingdezhen from National Geographic magazine, November 1920)
Interspersed among information about how to mix colors and glazes, Père d’Entrecolles wrote about workers who mixed and kneaded clay –
shaped and decorated objects –
and balanced wooden planks topped with porcelain wares on their shoulders as they walked through town.
He wrote about the elderly who mixed and ground glazes, those who blew glazes onto the surfaces through bamboo tubes,
laborers who drank salted tea to prevent getting dehydrated as they loaded and unloaded the sweltering kilns, and
of the dead bodies of the poor who were placed in pits that surrounded the city and the Buddhist monks who gathered and burned their bones to make room for more. In this manner, the mountains which surround Jingdezhen present to view the land where are returned all the bodies of all the millions of people who have undergone the fate of all mortals. … I recommend them to your prayers . . .
Père d’Entrecolles concluded with a plea for a modest donation for the mass of poor families . . . many young workers and weaker people . . . the blind and the crippled who spend their lives grinding pigments . . . Perhaps some pious individual who admires the beautiful works that Jingdezhen furnishes to all of Europe would be zealous enough to consecrate a small portion of his wealth to the conversion of our workers. Remember me in your prayers – d’Entrecolles, Mission of the Company of Jesus.
D’Entrecolles’s reports may be the first case of international espionage, but France was not the first country in Europe to produce porcelain. Difficulties remained. Local deposits of kaolin and a material similar to petunse had to be discovered. Kilns that could withstand and maintain the necessary temperatures had to be built. Skilled potters and other artists needed to be hired. It all required financial backers. After twenty-three years in Jingdezhen, Père d’Entrecolles took on new responsibilities in Beijing, where he died after living in China for forty years.
While d’Entrecolles was spending his first year in Jingdezhen, nineteen-year-old Johann Frederick Böttger was on the run from royal guards. Böttger had claimed that he could turn base metals into gold, and now the king, Frederick I of Prussia, wanted a demonstration. Böttger escaped across the border into Saxony and appealed to its monarch, Augustus II of Poland, for asylum.
It’s doubtful that Böttger could have imagined how his life was about to change. Augustus “the Strong”, known for his ability to bend metal horseshoes with his bare hands, toss live foxes, prolific sex life, and world’s largest collection of porcelain outside of China, was trying to finance an expensive war and build a palace more lavish than Versailles. Augustus’s armed troops escorted Böttger to Dresden and then imprisoned the alchemist in a dungeon laboratory. Produce gold or be put to death.
Augustus the Strong, 1718; Henryk Rodakowski; Lviv National Art Gallery, Ukraine
After several years and failed attempts to escape, Böttger was placed under the supervision of German physicist, physician, mathematician, and philosopher, Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus. Tschirnhaus was very close to successfully creating a formula for porcelain and needed an assistant. The two methodically analyzed sample after sample of minerals, clays, and rocks. Finally, clay from a small, nearby town that contained kaolin was tested and they reported to Augustus that hope was in sight. They continued to refine the amounts of the ingredients – kaolin and alabaster in place of petuntse – until, on January 15, 1708, they produced the first hard-paste porcelain body in Europe.
With pitiful irony, surrounded by kaolin, a substance now used in anti-diarrheal medications, Tschirnhaus died suddenly in 1708 from dysentery.
Böttger persisted; their kilns were not able to attain the necessary temperature. Eventually, in 1709, after years in captivity, Böttger wrote to Augustus that he had made “fine white porcelain together with the very finest glaze and painting as good as that of the Chinese, if not better.” Augustus kept the discovery a secret until 1710 when he was ready to announce the establishment of the first European porcelain factory in Meissen. Böttger was bestowed with the title of baron but remained in custody and under orders to resume experiments for creating gold.
Tea Caddy, c. 1732; Meissen Porcelain Factory; Hard-paste porcelain with enamel and gilt decoration (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1967-70-3a,b). Early Meissen porcelain reflects the influence of decorations and patterns from China (chinoiserie). The most famous pieces depict imaginary paradise-like worlds that were thought to be typical of China.
Böttger’s health declined so badly that after almost thirteen years of imprisonment, he was freed. He died of complications due to alcoholism in 1719; he was thirty-seven.
Augustus the Strong remained so infatuated with porcelain that he built the ‘Japanese Palace’ in Dresden to house his 20,000+ piece porcelain collection.
Master porcelain modeler Johann Kändler was assigned to complete Augustus’s vision for the second floor: a life-sized porcelain menagerie of 292 figures depicting thirty-two different birds and 296 figures representing thirty-seven other animals of domestic, exotic, and fantastic origin to complement his existing zoo of live animals and taxidermy collection. No porcelain sculptures of this size had ever been attempted anywhere in the world. The factory experimented with the formula considerably so that the clay sculptures could bear the weight during the second high-temperature glaze firing, when the material softened in the kiln. As a result, the surface finish and colors vary. Most of the animals exhibit fire-cracks, particularly at the base, where the greatest stresses occurred during the firing. Production continued until three years after Augustus’s death in 1736, but due to the exorbitant cost, the project was never completed.
Although Meissen’s formula for porcelain was divided among three people so that no one knew the entire recipe, workers were inevitably bribed. In 1719, one defector helped found Vienna, the second true-porcelain factory in Europe. (below, Coffeepot and Breakfast Service [Tête-à-Tête], 1805; Viennese Porcelain Factory; Hard-paste-porcelain with underglaze and gilt decoration; Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Not to be outdone, the king of France, King Louis XV, turned to the Orry family, many of whom were finance ministers in the government.
In 1738, a relative of Louis-François Orry, the treasurer of the Jesuit mission in India and China and recipient of D’Entrecolles’s letters, converted the king’s former hunting lodge at Vincennes into a porcelain factory.
Saucer (Soucoupe), c. 1752; Vincennes Porcelain Factory; Soft-paste porcelain with enamel and gilt decoration (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1942-59-124b)
Vincennes’s soft-paste porcelain was marked underneath with the royal cipher – two interlaced L’s – in cobalt blue.
Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, insisted that the factory relocate near her château at Sèvres.
Coffeepot in the Form of an Elephant’s Head, 1862; Designed and decorated by Marc-Louis-Emmanuel Solon, Sèvres porcelain factory (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1994-2-1a,b). The pâte-sur-pâte decorative technique seen here, where layers of slip (liquid clay) are built up in layers to create sculptural elements, was developed at Sèvres.
In 1772, when a deposit of kaolin was discovered at Limoges, Sèvres began to produce hard-paste porcelain.
Pitcher and Bowl, c. 1808; Hard-paste porcelain with underglaze blue, enamel, and gilt decoration; Sèvres porcelain factory (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1901-208,a)
The glory of Sèvres porcelain is the color. Because Madame de Pompadour was particularly fond of pink, a particular tint was created for her. Her porcelain flowers were scented with perfume.
In time, there were hard-paste porcelain factories all over Europe. Modern porcelain can be found in electrical insulating products, in bathroom necessities, and on dining tables.
None compare to the most desired porcelain objects in the world today, the tiny wine cups made at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen exclusively for the Emperor Chenghua (r. 1465 – 1487) that are decorated with a rooster and hen tending her chicks. Only seventeen are known to exist. The recipe for their porcelain paste was completely unique and resulted in a whiter, denser biscuit (porcelain fired in a kiln, but not yet glazed) that had a clearer, finer, and distinctive soft sheen. Since no satisfactory overglaze blue enamel existed at this time, the design was outlined in underglaze blue and filled in with overglaze colored enamels. Blue elements were painted under the glaze. If the outline painter made a mistake, it meant disaster, since the cobalt-blue glaze would be immediately absorbed into the unglazed body. A Chenghua Chicken Cup is the one of the finest and rarest specimens of Chinese ceramics. Chinese emperors wrote odes to them. For historians and collectors, they are the Holy Grail of the ceramic art world.
Chicken Cups were held in such high regard that the Manchu court (1644 – 1911) ordered the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen to imitate them.
The story of porcelain is a tale of art and artists, world history, culture, economics, science, aesthetics, power, and obsession. When looking at a piece of porcelain in a museum, look slowly and carefully at its shape, colors, and size, for they will tell you about the people who made it and their lives.
The cock has crowed and all under heaven is bright – Tang dynasty poet Li He
– Meighan Maley
Gerritsen, Anne, and Stephen McCowall. “Material Culture and the Other: European Encounters with Chinese Porcelain, Ca. 1650-1800.” Journal of World History, vol. 23, no. 1, 2012, pp. 87–113. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41508052.
Gleeson, Janet. The Arcanum – The Extraordinary True Story; Warner Books, Inc. (1998)
Finlay, Robert. “The Pilgrim Art: The Culture of Porcelain in World History.” Journal of World History, vol. 9, no. 2, 1998, pp. 141–187; 253-296. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20078727.
Treutlein, Theodore E. “Jesuit Missions in China during the Last Years of K’ang Hsi.” Pacific Historical Review, vol. 10, no. 4, 1941, pp. 435–446. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3633485.
Philadelphia Museum of Art Website