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Collection in Focus: Chinese Porcelain

Collection in Focus: Chinese Porcelain
July 3, 2019 By: Dawn Reid Brean, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts

Collection in Focus: Chinese Porcelain

A new installation at the Frick Art Museum explores Henry Clay Frick’s interest in Chinese porcelain. 


Chinese, Qing Dynasty
Miniature vases, bowls, and snuff bottles, 18th and 19th century, porcelain

The Chinese porcelains in The Frick Pittsburgh’s permanent collection are of extraordinary breadth and quality, containing examples created for the imperial court, domestic trade, and the export market. Chinese porcelains were key additions to Henry Clay Frick’s collecting in the early 1900s, as he sought to create an immersive environment that would complement the superb Old Master paintings and British portraits that formed the focus of his collection.

Chinese, Qing Dynasty
Qianlong Period (1736-1795)
Vase, 18th century, porcelain with enamel decoration

Some of Frick’s earliest purchases of Chinese porcelain date to 1903, when he commissioned Cottier and Company to redecorate several rooms at Clayton; the firm included monumental imperial porcelains along with other objets d’art and antiquities for the interior scheme. Two years later, Frick purchased a charming collection of miniature porcelains from the estate of ceramics connoisseur George B. Warren, which Frick displayed in two custom-built cases at Eagle Rock, the family’s summer home in Prides Crossing, Massachusetts. Frick’s porcelain collection expanded further in 1915 with the purchase of several objects previously owned by financier and collector J.P. Morgan from Duveen Brothers. Several exceptional objects from that group remain part of The Frick Pittsburgh’s collection, while several others are on view at The Frick Collection in New York.

Porcelains on display at Eagle Rock
Photo courtesy of the Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

Porcelains on display at Eagle Rock
Photo courtesy of the Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives


The western obsession with Chinese porcelain stretches back to the 1400s, when blue-and-white wares began arriving in Europe in great quantities. Porcelain became a symbol of wealth, status, and power, and collecting porcelain remained fashionable for centuries.


Chinese, Qing Dynasty
Miniature vases, bowls, and snuff bottles, 18th and 19th century, porcelain

The majority of the objects in Frick’s collection were made during the reign of the Kangxi (1662–1722), Yongzheng (1723–1795), or Qianlong (1736–1795) emperors. Porcelains produced during this period are often considered the pinnacle of ceramic achievement in the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), showcasing technological advances and stylistic innovations. The examples on view represent the development of glaze technologies, including cobalt blue underglaze decoration, overglaze enamels, and a wide range of rich monochrome glazes. Decorative imagery contains examples of traditional Chinese symbolism, including dragons, flowers, fruits, and bats as well as figurative landscapes derived from literature, scroll paintings, woodblock prints, and religious subjects including Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. 

Chinese, Qing Dynasty
Qianlong Period (1736-1795)
Vase, 18th century, porcelain with enamel decoration

Chinese, Qing Dynasty
Qianlong Period (1736-1795)
Vase, 18th century, porcelain with enamel decoration

The installation will be on display through early 2020. Look for future blog posts that will explore specific themes in depth. In the meantime, Andrew Baseman, set decorator for the film Crazy Rich Asians, has written about his time visiting us at the Frick and his use of Chinese porcelains in the film here
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