Saturday, January 2, 1971

Pocelain: A Fragile Luxury From China

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Beautiful Chinese porcelain was one of the first Oriental imports of the Dutch East India Company. Starting in the early XVIIth century, this Chinese export article became a sought-after collector’s item and a precious type of durable goods. 
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The Portuguese initially brought it back from China and then sold it in many cities, among them Antwerp. The Netherlands was also supplied by Lisbon. However, when Philip I of Spain, at war with Holland, also became King of Portugal in 1580 and blocked trade between Portugal and the Netherlands, the Dutch shipowners decided to send their vessels to the Orient. 
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By attacking and capturing Portuguese ships (called “caracas” or “caraques” {carracks}), the Dutch appropriated products that could no longer be found on sale. It is likely that the porcelain requisitioned in this way owes its name of “caraque porcelain” to these ships. 
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Caraque or imported porcelain was purchased either directly from the East India shipowners or at auctions, fairs or shops by a constantly growing group of rich and powerful bourgeois who could afford this luxury and coveted it. According to the calculations of the English accountant Gregory King, the Dutch, at the end of the XVIIth century, had the highest average income in northern Europe. 
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At this period, sovereigns, wealthy shipowners and regents gathered precious collections of rare and exceptional art objects. These collections focused on “the natural,” i.e., objects produced by nature such as seashells or coral, and “the artificial,” products that were man-made. 
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These objects were exhibitied in rooms called “cabinets d’art” or art collection rooms. At the end of the XVIth century, Chinese porcelain already held a place of importance in the sovereigns’ collection rooms. They subsequently fitted out rooms especially for porcelain collections. Even though they no longer exist in Holland, we can still have a fairly accurate idea of these porcelain collection rooms in miniature through the Sara Rothé dollhouse found in the Gemeentemuseum, the municipal museum of The Hague, and especially thanks to the examples kept in Germany, such as the one in the Würzberg Residence. 
Porcelain made in China for European commissions was called “commissioned China.” By adapting itself to the style of the period, the aesthetic quality and typically Chinese style of this porcelain was supplanted by forms and decorations tailored to its customers’ wishes.
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As the demand for imported porcelain rapidly outstripped supply, Dutch potters went as far as imitating Chinese porcelain. The center of these activities was the city of Delft, advantageously located on the Schie, a river permitting navigable access to the rest of the country and abroad. 
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The production of Delft ceramics reached its apogee between about 1660 and 1725, a period during which the city was the most important faience production center in northern Europe. In the middle of the XVIIth century, the number of workshops went from eight to 288. Dutch ceramics became so refined that the faience makers called themselves “porcelain makers” to clearly distinguish this production from that of the coarser pottery they also manufactured. 
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Delft faience is still often called “Delft porcelain” today but, in truth, no genuine porcelain was ever produced for the simple reason that the faience makers did not have the kaolin needed for its manufacture. They imitated it by covering ordinary ceramics with a white tin enamel which, when subjected to the heat of the kiln, adhered to the pottery without melting. Starting in the mid-XVIIth century, in addition to blue porcelain, multicolored porcelain from China and Japan was imported that presented real technical challenges for the faience makers before they learned how to imitate them. 
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The production of and trade in Delft faience was of extraordinary scope. Its enormous influence could be seen in the number of faience works that were created in the southern provinces, Germany and France which, in their turn, imitated Delft faience. Toward the middle of the XVIIIth century, Delft’s reputation began to wane, supplanted by the competition of European porcelain which had at that period conquered the international market.