Emperor Kangxi ruled the Qing Dynasty for a period of 60 years. He was the third son of the previous Emperor Shunzhi. When he took over the throne he was still a young boy, so he did not have full control until 1677. He was interested in the arts and sciences and was actually a poet and calligrapher himself. This could be the reason why he ordered the reconstruction of the Jingdezhen kilns in 1682, and also why the Kangxi period became the most successful period in the history of Chinese Art. Many new types of porcelain were developed, including the opaque biscuit, colourful famille verte wares, as well as the stronger, bolder blue and white porcelains.
In the early years of Kangxi reign, many pieces were produced in biscuit: the body was given an initial high firing without the glaze. This biscuit is more opaque than porcelain; it doesn’t reflect light, and is, on occasions rough and porous. Many pieces previously attributed to the Ming period are now dated to the last decades of the 17th century. It is not surprising, since such perfectly crafted pieces could not have been manufactured during the politically unstable Ming period.
Fired without glaze, the body is better suited to complex shapes and modelling, which explains why the biscuit wares are so varied: imposing potiches, baluster or mallet vases, pillows, birds, chimaeras, Taoist and Buddhist figures, as well as a multitude of statuettes and small objects for the tea ceremony and the writer’s desk, all extremely fine and delicate.
The decoration is applied in enamels on the piece once it has cooled, after which it is fired on a muffle kiln. The colours tend to be more muted, since the enamels are applied over a mat body and not a brilliant glaze. They are also rather fragile and likely to suffer from glaze crawl. Lastly, the bases are never glazed. The colour schemes tend to be reminiscent of the Ming Era three colour ware (sancai) with green, yellow and manganese purple, or the classic turquoise, blue and aubergine. A rarer group, much sought after by collectors, is the famille noire, consisting mostly of very large vases with exceptionally elegant decoration. The black ground is obtained by placing the green enamel over a brown-black pigment, thereby achieving the beauty and depth of lacquer. The decoration is generously applied over the surface with no borders or reserves, and is very free flowing: flowering braches, birds, bamboos, rocks and so on.
Famille verte (“Yingcai” in Chinese) or “hard colours”
These polychrome wares were typical of the Kangxhi reign, and are descended from the Ming polychrome porcelains, especially the five-colour wucai ware. It is distinguishable through two essential details: the disappearance of turquoise blue, and the presence of a beautiful blue enamel, tending to lavender, which replaces or coexists with the underglaze blue of the preceding period. The range of greens has no less than eight tones, sometimes all used together in one design. Iron red , manganese purple and titanium yellow complete this exquisite palette with all its intermediary subtleties. By the addition of several layers, the shade could be darkened; the enamels then stand up in slight relief from the ground.
There are two primary periods for classifying famille verte porcelains of the Kangxi Era: the first (1662-80) can be called the transitional period and the second begins with the arrival of Cang Yingxuan (new porcelain director) at the Imperial Factory (1683) and goes on until the end of the reign. The brilliance of the enamels, the diversity of forms, the sumptuous and varied designs, all testify to the technical and artistic accomplishments brought about by Yingxuan. The pieces decorated in Chinese taste have their roots in the art of the painter: scenes with figures, as well as landscapes treated simply and elegantly on a white background. As it became richer, it borrowed motifs from the silks and brocades of the period: interlace, floral arabesques, dotted lines, quarterings, containing delicately coloured insects and butterflies. It is not clear whether these elaborately decorated wares were made specifically for the European market, however there was an innumerable amount of porcelain of the famille verte style imported into European collections since the 17th century.
Blue and White porcelain
From the 17th century, Persian cobalt blue was mixed with Chinese cobalt which is richer in manganese. This native cobalt, far less costly than the cobalt imported from abroad, was increasingly refined and used in the reign of Kangxi. From 1683 it attained the height of perfection with “sapphire blue”, a deep luminous colour never equalled before or since. “Sapphire blue” of the Kangxi period was neither too pale or too dark. The colour, free of all impurities, is limpid and has a lovely sheen. Applied directly to the unfired body – which has a very fine grain – cannot be corrected once painted.
The shapes are very varied: bowls, baluster vases, rouleau vases called “paper beaters”, flat-rimmed dishes, five-piece sets (usually three potiches and two horns). These latter were very popular in Europe from the end of 17th century.
The designs in blue-and-white are as varied as those on the polychrome wares. Floral motifs were most typical: prunus, magnolia, lotus and peonies were ubiquitous. Then there were designs with figures, scenes from famous novels, illustrations depicting Imperial receptions, mythological creatures, even European-inspired scenes such as jousting, acrobats and dancers, girls in gardens, famous landscapes and scenes of family life. The tiger lily with great long flowers or the bird on a flowering branch are entirely in the Chinese taste, like the design with hawthorn flowers on an ice-crackle ground. This latter theme had its moment of glory in Europe at the end of 19th century. Whistler, who painted the famous Princess from the Land of Porcelain, made it a symbol of artistic purity.
Kaishu script (left); zhuanshu archaic seal script (right), zhuanshu does not
normally appear on genuine Kanxi porcelain
The practice of writing the mark on the base of an artefact only became common in the Kangxi period. In the early part of this reign conditions were unsettled in China. and the use of reign marks on porcelain was prohibited. The prohibition must either have been abolished or ignored because large quantities of non-imperial commercial wares with the Kangxi mark have survived.
The majority of Kangxi marks can be divided into three chronological groups on the basis of their calligraphy, provided allowances are made for the style, shape and size of the object to which the marks are applied. Large, bold, freely written marks are rather loose and untidy. The calligraphy of the third group tends to be precise, tighter, rather small and less ‘free’ than the other two groups. The third style is especially common on a small group of imperial wares usually small in size and of superb quality; for example the ‘peach bloom’ pieces, with their rich but subtle copper-derived glaze and the ‘month cups’. These small fine pieces were probably produced later in the reign.
Pieces decorated in famille verte enamels exhibit character marks, they have the ‘kai-shu’ character ‘nian’ replaced by ‘yu’ (imperial). They are believed to have been decorated at the Peking Palace workshops rather than at Jingdezhen, where most of the Qing imperial wares were produced and decorated.
Imperial Kangxi Marks:
Middle period: freely written and loose
Late period: small, tight and precise writing
Da Qing Kangxi Nian Zhi mark: an Imperial mark on a non-Imperial piece, a publicpractice which was prohibited by the emperor.
End of period: Artemisia leaf and Lingzhi fungus marks, other marks for this period include two empty rings, which can be considered period marks but not Imperial.