Falangcai of the Kangxi reign – porcelains from Jingdezhen painted in the Imperial workshops of the Forbidden City in Beijing with ‘foreign enamels’ – are among the rarest and most dazzling ceramic wares of the Qing dynasty. Unlike most other wares of that period they were individually produced, subject to close scrutiny by the Emperor, and each piece is unique.
The Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722) was one of China’s greatest rulers, who anchored the foreign Qing dynasty firmly in the Empire’s long, continuous history. It was a prosperous period, when China was a powerful magnet for embassies from the West. The Emperor was an intelligent and highly educated ruler, who unquestioningly embraced classical Chinese learning as a central foundation of Chinese culture, but at the same time openly welcomed modern progress, even if it came from outside. Although the arts and crafts as such were clearly not on the top of his agenda, he became a particularly engaged patron due to his interest in technical development.
To this end he had workshops for a wide variety of scientific instruments and other practical and decorative objects set up in the Forbidden City, very close to his personal living quarters, where he could follow, encourage and criticise any progress made in their production. During his reign these workshops resembled sophisticated experimental laboratories where court artists, artisans and technicians explored new scientific discoveries, manufacturing methods and substances. For the same reasons he welcomed foreigners to the court, mainly from Europe, to provide information on international standards of scientific and technical knowledge and to supply skills and materials unknown in China.
European Jesuit priests had, among many other things, brought European enamel wares as gifts to the court, with the ulterior motif to gain access to the Emperor through foreign novelties. As the Emperor was keen to have them reproduced by the Imperial palace workshops, European enamelling specialists as well as the enamels themselves were sent from Europe. The new colours were first used on copper vessels where, like in Europe, they were applied overall to completely hide the metal body underneath, their floral designs contrasting with brightly coloured backgrounds (see, for example, a bowl with prunus in the British Museum, London, accession no. 1939,1014.1, also in Hugh Moss, By Imperial Command. An Introduction to Ch’ing Imperial Painted Enamels, Hong Kong, 1976, pl. 10).
The first ceramics enamelled in Beijing closely followed these enamelled metal wares in style and colouration. The same enamels as used for decorating copper were applied to brown Yixing stonewares and white Jingdezhen porcelains. Although at Jingdezhen enamels had long been applied onto fully glazed and fired porcelain vessels, these Chinese predecessors do not seem to have been taken as models. The first enamellers in Beijing – perhaps Westerners – may have considered the shiny porcelain glaze an unsuitable surface for the enamels to adhere, so that porcelains partly or fully unglazed and left in the biscuit were specially created at Jingdezhen and supplied to the court for this new imperial adventure. A unique vase in the Palace Museum, Beijing, with a similar puce background, was provided as a blank biscuit vessel without any glaze, see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Porcelains with Cloisonné Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Hong Kong, 1999, no. 1. For bowls and dishes peculiar orders must have gone out to Jingdezhen to provide specimens with a glazed interior and base, and an unglazed exterior. The unglazed parts were then fully covered with enamel, just like on a copper vessel. Background colours may also have been deemed desirable to create smooth surfaces rather than designs raised in slight relief, since even some Yixing wares are covered in dark brown enamel, of the same tone as the original stoneware, applied as background colour around the design.
This work did not start until 1711, leaving only a dozen years for the technique to be perfected during the Kangxi reign. The enamels used in that period were still imported pigments, which must have contributed to the rarity of completed items. By far the most special among the new foreign enamels was the ruby- or rose-red enamel tone, not only since it was dramatically different from all locally created colours, but also because it was derived from gold. The Imperial workshops had apparently not yet mastered it even in the 6th year of Yongzheng when, under guidance of Prince Yunxiang, brother of the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-35), eighteen new enamel colours were reported to have been successfully produced there.
The present bowl is wonderful testimony to this collaboration between the potters in Jingdezhen and the painters in Beijing. The former threw and fired the plain porcelain bowl in Jiangxi province, south of the Yangzi River, the glaze carefully added to leave a clean, glazed rim and a neat, unglazed footring; the latter painted a highly complex design of naturalistically interlaced flowers in a wide variety of colours and shades, then applied a remarkably even rouge-red background, and fired the bowl again, to admirable perfection, within the Forbidden City. Although such Kangxi examples are among the earliest porcelains decorated in the new Western enamelling manner, the present bowl displays complete mastery of this sophisticated new method of decoration – a distinction not shared by all its contemporaries.
The new enamelling technique was introduced to and employed at Jingdezhen not much later, but the differences between contemporary wares created with similar materials in the two different manufactories are vast. What is special about these early pieces from the Beijing palace workshops is the remarkable variety in their range of enamels, which seems to vary from piece to piece, whereas for the yangcai or famille-rose porcelains produced at Jingdezhen a standard palette was very soon developed and employed, which allowed for little flexibility.
The other all-important difference between Beijing and Jingdezhen manufactories is that the latter had always produced porcelains on a massive scale. Individual items were completed production-line style, with many different hands contributing to every single piece. The Beijing workshops on the other hand, located in a pavilion within the confines of the palace, were a completely different setup. Here individual artists would create individual works of art, and the whole complex was small in scale, not least for simple reasons of space and inconvenience to ordinary palace life. The present bowl is unique, like all falangcai bowls in the Kangxi period, even though they all share overall stylistic features, equally pointing to a small operation.
Inspiration for some of the decoration devised during this period probably came from the Westerners who mastered the enamelling technique, as many of the early falangcai porcelains are decorated with fanciful stylised blooms that are uncharacteristic of Chinese ornament. Other designs, such as the present one, however, derived more directly from Chinese flower painting, as court painters worked here side by side with enamellers and were at times recruited to do some enamelling work themselves. The decoration on the present bowl, from the opulent blooming peonies with dense curly petals to the variegated leaves, displays a scene of opulence and prosperity well-suited for the period and evokes the tradition of Chinese paintings.
Despite a lack of identical examples, there are related imperial vessels of slightly different proportions or designs preserved in major museums and private collections. A shallow red-ground bowl with a puce-enamel yuzhi mark from the Qing Court collection, dominated on the exterior by four lavish peony blooms in blue, green, lilac and orange enamels, is now in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and included in the exhibition Shen bi danqing. Lang Shining lai Hua sanbai nian tezhan/Portrayals from a Brush Divine. A Special Exhibition on the Tricentennial of Giuseppe Castiglione’s Arrival in China, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2015, cat. no. I-15 (fig. 1). Gold granules are found in the lilac colour of that bowl, which is believed to be formulated with a mixture of cobalt-based blue and gold-derived red glass powders (see Wang Chu-Ping, ‘Examining the manufacture of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in the Kangxi-Yongzheng period through iron-red porcelains’, The National Palace Museum Monthly of Chinese Art, January 2013, no. 358, pp. 54-55). The National Palace Museum in Taipei also has another red-ground bowl of similar size and shape from the Qing Court collection, but inscribed with a blue-enamel mark and decorated with poppies and asters, illustrated in Shen bi danqing, op.cit., cat. no. I-17. See also a tripod incense burner in the Au Bakling collection, similarly depicting peonies against a ruby background on biscuit porcelain, illustrated on the cover of Chinese Ceramics. Selected Articles from Orientations 1983-2003, Hong Kong, 2004. The frilly petals and the slender stems on the incense burner create an impression of daintiness, in contrast to the vitality and abundance suggested by the lush blooms and broad leaves on the present bowl. Compare another red-ground bowl with a blue-enamel yuzhi mark formerly in the collections of Robert Chang and Dr Alice Cheng, enamelled directly on the biscuit body with multicolour double lotuses and leaves in blue and green, sold three times in these rooms, most recently on 8th April 2013, lot 101.
Further bowls adorned with peonies, albeit against yellow backgrounds, are preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing. A slightly larger bowl of this form with a puce-enamel yuzhi mark, splendidly enamelled with eight blooms in pink, green, blue and purple, together with variegated leaves, demonstrates a painting style similar to that of the present bowl (fig. 2). It is published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, op.cit., no. 4, where the throwing marks of the porcelain body underneath the enamels are visible, a feature also apparent on the present bowl. See two other examples with blue-enamel yuzhi marks from the Qing Court collection, ibid., nos 5-6.
There is a related group of falangcai bowls with stylised peony designs. Examples include a shallow puce-enamel marked bowl in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, painted with a scroll of three formalised flowerheads outlined in black against a red background, stylistically not dissimilar to cloisonné enamelled wares, illustrated in Kangxi dadi yu taiyangwang luyi shisi tezhan: zhongfa yishu wenhua de jiaohui/Emperor Kangxi and the Sun King Louis XIV. Sino-Franco Encounters in Arts and Culture, Taipei, 2011, cat. no. IV-35.
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