Millionaire’s Taste: The 19th Century Reinvention of Famille-Noire Porcelains

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T he late 19th century witnessed a frenzy and fervor surrounding famille-noire porcelains. The term itself had only recently been coined in 1873 by the French author Albert Jacquemart. Kangxi porcelains were enjoying an extraordinary period of renewed interest in Europe and North America, prompting the development of terms, categories, and catalogues. The taste for famille-noire in particular was engendered by a combination of current fashion, as represented by the Aesthetic movement in Britain, promoted by prominent artists Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828-1881) and James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1902), both of whom were avid collectors of Kangxi blue and white porcelains; and the emergence of Japonisme which rose to the cultural foreground by means of Commodore Perry (1794-1858) and the opening to Japan in 1853. The final ingredient of the surge of interest of collecting these large, black-ground wares was supplied by the extraordinary wealth created by enormous industrial growth. Newly minted millionaires in England and America vied with one another to acquire the best art to fill the enormous rooms of their grand estates.

Of the great dealers of the period, Edgar Gorer, Joseph Duveen, and Frank Partridge are the names most frequently credited with advising and providing many of the greatest Chinese porcelain collectors of the day with Kangxi period examples, including numerous famille-noire vessels.

With demand established, the issue of supply became paramount. Two elements facilitated the production of famille-noire in China in the late 19th century. The first resulted from the political and social turmoil that defined China in the last years of the Qing dynasty. Commissions were disappearing for the potters of Jingdezhen and they certainly would have welcomed requests for Kangxi-style wares, including large scale famille-noire pieces. Secondly, black was the natal color of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), and it is reputed that the palace eunuchs added black grounds to famille-verte wares to please her (see Gerald ReiHinger Economics of Taste, vol. 2, London, 1970, p. 212). Subsequently, others wishing to gain favor may well have engaged potters at Jingdezhen with the task of creating wares of this palette as gifts to the Empress Dowager. Both genuine Kangxi wares with bodies scraped and re-enameled; and entirely new wares were sold to the West as Kangxi period; an attribution that was not seriously questioned until 1974 with John Alexander Pope’s catalog of the Frick Collections porcelains. Pope put forth a convincing argument about the famille-noire wares, observing that all large-scale objects were late 19th century (for more on this see Pope John Alexander, The Frick Collection: An Illustrated Catalogue. Vol. 7 Porcelains, Oriental and French, Washington, 1974, pp. 87—90). Although Pope, along with a few other scholars, questioned these wares, it was not until the 1990s and early 2000s that there was widespread agreement and reattribution of large famille-noire wares to the late 19th century.

Famille-noire wares comprised many of the most expensive porcelains sold in the first decades of the 20th century. A vase purchased by Frank Partridge for a few hundred pounds was sold in 1919 for the astronomical amount of £12,000 to John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937). The largest collectors of famille-noire were George Salting (1839-1909), who bequeathed his collection to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and James A. Garland (1840-1902). The Garland Collection was purchased by Duveen for $500,000, sold to J. P. Morgan (1837-1913), reacquired by Duveen after Morgan’s death with much of the collection going to John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937). Clients and dealers competed vigorously for coveted examples of famille-noire; the intensity resulting in ruptured friendships and even acrimonious lawsuits. The relatively recent reassignment of these wares to the late 19th century does not diminish their appeal or splendor but allows us to appreciate them as a unique expression of a golden age of collecting in the West.

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