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Collection in Focus: Famille Rose

Collection in Focus: Famille Rose
February 6, 2020 By: Sarah Hall, Chief Curator, Director of Collections

Collection in Focus: Famille Rose

This gorgeously decorated 18th-century Chinese vase was purchased in 1915 by Henry Clay Frick, part of a group of Chinese porcelains from the collection of J. P. Morgan. A number of pieces of porcelain from this purchase descended to Frick’s daughter Helen and became part of The Frick Art Museum’s founding collection.

Chinese (Qing dynasty 1644–1911, Qianlong mark and period, 1736–1795) Famille Rose Vase. Porcelain with overglaze enamels. 20 1/8” H. 1970.12

A superb example of a form popular during the Qing period, this vase illustrates the height of porcelain craftsmanship at the time. Although known in the West as early as the 13th-century travels of Marco Polo, porcelain (also called china) was not regularly imported to Europe until the 17th century. Since Europeans did not find appropriate clay deposits for manufacturing porcelain until 1708, imported Chinese ware was a luxury item from the moment it was available to Westerners. Even when porcelain was more readily available, wealthy and noble patrons collected the finest specimens.

Chinese (Qing dynasty 1644–1911, Qianlong mark and period, 1736–1795) Famille Rose Vase (detail). Porcelain with overglaze enamels. 20 1/8” H. 1970.12

Close examination of this vase reveals work of astonishing skill—blushing peaches, delicately rustling leaves, and a composition which uses the porcelain as a canvas, spreading the leafy branches and fruit and flower clusters across the surface asymmetrically, rather than arranging them in a repetitive, decorative pattern. The effect is beautifully naturalistic, even though fruit and flowers would likely never appear together in such abundance.  

Chinese (Qing dynasty 1644–1911, Qianlong mark and period, 1736–1795) Famille Rose Vase (detail). Porcelain with overglaze enamels. 20 1/8” H. 1970.12

During the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, this particular technique of painting in overglaze enamels was perfected. First the vase was formed and covered with a translucent glaze and fired at a temperature of about 1300°. The design was then painted on over the already glazed surface. In this case, using a palette dubbed famille rose in the West, because of the dominance of pink and red tones. More important than the colors themselves, however, was a new technique for mixing them discovered late in the 17th century, which allowed the artists decorating porcelain to achieve subtle gradations in color and work with the care and precision of an oil painter. The vase was then fired again at a lower temperature.

                     

Chinese (Qing dynasty 1644–1911, Qianlong mark and period, 1736–1795) Famille Rose Vase (detail). Porcelain with overglaze enamels. 20 1/8” H. 1970.12

The vase reflects traditional Chinese imagery. The peach is a symbol of both longevity and good fortune in China. One ancient Chinese story tells of the Eight Immortals, who maintain their immortality through eating peaches from the orchard of goddess Xiwangmu. The peaches take 1,000 years to ripen, but upon consumption convey 3,000 years of life. Nine peaches are depicted on this vase, which is also significant—since the Chinese pronunciation of the word for nine is similar to that of the Chinese word for long, it also references long life. The form and design of this vase was particularly popular during the 18th century, when tall, long-necked vases with low, globe-shaped bodies, called tianqiuping (celestial sphere), decorated with nine peaches were likely used as commemorative gifts.

Chinese (Qing dynasty 1644–1911, Qianlong mark and period, 1736–1795) Famille Rose Vase. Porcelain with overglaze enamels. 20 1/8” H. 1970.12

Famous collectors of Chinese porcelain include the artist James McNeill Whistler, who was an avid admirer of Chinese blue and white wares, as well as John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Robert Sterling Clark, who were serious collectors in the first half of the twentieth century. Collectors in the era of Morgan and Frick were often steered to porcelains by dealers like Joseph Duveen, who felt that the same porcelains that had graced the rooms of Chinese and European nobility were fitting complements to any collection of fine art.

See the Famille Rose Vase and other stunning examples of Chinese porcelain that once decorated Frick's estates, Clayton and Eagle Rock, in a special installation in the French room of The Frick Art Museum. They are indeed fitting complements to his collection of fine art, as well as exquisite works on their own.
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