Middlebury College Museum of Art

News & Events

Ancient Tradition of Chinese Porcelain Comes to Middlebury

March 19, 2007

“Azure Skies and Pure Snows: Chinese Blue-and-White Porcelains of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) Dynasties from the Rui Fang and Barbara P. and Robert P. ’64 Youngman Collections”

Through December 9, 2007

For immediate release: 3/19/07
For further information contact: Colin Mackenzie, Robert P. Youngman Curator of Asian Art, (802) 443–5558

Middlebury, VT— A small but exquisite exhibition of one of the world’s great traditions of decorative art is now on display in the Robert F. Reiff Gallery of Asian Art at the Middlebury College Museum of Art. With a history spanning six hundred years, Chinese blue-and-white porcelain has been the most influential ceramic tradition in history. The stunning contrast between the white- or cream-colored body of the porcelain and the rich and varied hues of the blue decoration have been exploited by Chinese artisans to brilliant effect, captivating Chinese emperors, Indian and Western Asian potentates, European aristocracy and, most recently,  European and Chinese collectors, who see in blue-and-white porcelain the epitome of elegance. Chinese blue-and-white was exported world wide and inspired countless, but always inferior imitations in Asia and Europe.

The twenty-one pieces in this exhibition tell the story of this tradition from its beginnings in the fourteenth century down to the present day. It is an intriguing irony that this decorative style was initially inspired by foreign markets. As early as the sixth century the Chinese had developed true porcelain (in Europe the manufacture of porcelain was only mastered in the eighteenth century), but had shown little interest in decorating it with a colored pigment. In Western Asia, on the other hand, potters had used brilliant blue pigments derived from cobalt oxide since ancient times, but were unable to prevent the painted designs from blurring and running. Islamic merchants introduced cobalt oxide to Chinese potters who discovered how to paint detailed designs on porcelain.

A small dish in the exhibition made around 1350, only decades after the technique had been mastered, shows a design of two mandarin ducks, a Chinese symbol of conjugal fidelity. Although this piece is Chinese in motif, the majority of Chinese blue-and-white during the fourteenth century was made for export to Western Asia and was often decorated in Islamic taste. In China at this time, blue-and-white was still considered vulgar, but by the early fifteenth century the Chinese imperial court had become active patrons ordering large quantities for use in the palaces. These imperial pieces, of which the exhibition includes nine examples, were inscribed with the titles of the reigning emperor, a practice that continued right down to the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

A bowl decorated on the exterior with a flower scroll epitomizes the bold and assured brushwork of the reign of the Emperor Xuande (r. 1426–35), widely regarded as the pinnacle of Chinese blue-and-white style. The style of this piece, however, is still in many ways Islamic, but by the time of the Emperor Chenghua (r. 1465–87) a more Chinese taste had appeared, epitomized by the delicate form and spacious floral scroll of  a rare “Palace Bowl,” one of the highlights of  the exhibition.

Other outstanding imperial pieces of the Ming dynasty include a Jiajing (r. 1522–66) bowl decorated in brilliant blue with dragons and a monumental meiping (prunus vase) standing over thirty inches tall. This vase is virtually identical with six other meipingthat were discovered in the tomb of the Emperor Wanli (r. 1573–1620) and undoubtedly was created as part of a larger set for the emperor. Imperial Qing dynasty pieces include a bowl decorated with scenes of sericulture (silk production) taken from an album commissioned by the Emperor Kangxi (r. 1662–1722), and three exquisite small wine cups.

High quality blue-and-white porcelain was not confined to imperial commission. Pieces intended for the Islamic market were often of comparable quality and this exhibition includes three large early fifteenth century dishes decorated with floral scrolls, grape vines, and bamboo, prunus, and pine. A seventeenth-century brush pot decorated with a scene of boys playing and a woman dreaming and an impressive “moon flask” decorated with two frontal-face rampant dragons also exemplify the high quality of non-imperial wares. The exhibition also includes a dish from the shipwreck of an early seventeenth-century Chinese junk which sank off the coast of Vietnam while en route to Malaysia. Another shipwreck group—a tea service commissioned for the European market recently purchased by the Museum at auction in Amsterdam—will be added to the display when it arrives in early April.

The exhibition will remain on view through Dec. 9. The Middlebury College Museum of Art is free and open to the public Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays. The Museum is accessible to people with varying disabilities. Parking is available in the Center for the Arts parking lot. For further information, please call (802) 443–5007 or TTY (802) 443–3155, or visit the Museum’s website at http://museum.middlebury.edu/.