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ca. 1715-25

ca. 1735-40

Dinner, tea and coffee service

Punch bowl


Covered Tureen
early 19th century
Art from the East
by Fred Stern

"Chinese Export Porcelain at the Metropolitan Museum of Art," Jan. 14, 2003-July 13, 2003, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028

On Feb. 22, 1784, the good ship "Empress of China" left New York for Canton, China, with an assorted cargo of fur, tar and lead. The ship would bring back silk, ivories and porcelain. It was the first time an American ship traveled the route, and established the United States as an important buyer of Chinese export goods.

Of course, the high luster, hard-paste Chinese porcelain was already in the colonies, brought there by the Van Cortlandts and other Dutch patricians and their British counterparts, who had become tired of European earthenware.

For Europe did not have what China had -- the right raw materials and the perfect kilns to make hard-paste porcelain, i.e., porcelain that could be fired at high temperatures into a beautiful white china. Using inexhaustible deposits of kaolin, a white clay, along with a binder of a feldspar called petuntse, the Chinese perfected the manufacture of porcelain as we know it. The Europeans had nothing to equal the quality, endurance and style of porcelainware.

Initially the sea routes were around the Cape of Good Hope. The first Chinese porcelain traveled to the Portuguese market in 1498, and soon the British, Italian, French, Germans and Dutch entered the picture as enthusiastic customers. An estimated 300 million pieces of Chinese porcelain would be produced for the overseas markets over just two centuries.

The Europeans wanted their armorial crests shown on the porcelain they purchased. The procedure went as follows. A European ship would enter a Chinese harbor, usually Canton, carrying dozens of armorial designs. The porcelain company would then incorporate these proud emblems into dinner ware, chargers, punch bowls and vases. A year or two later, the same captain would return and load his ship for home. Many times the porcelain was simply treated as ballast, not even crated.

Since America did not have a titled aristocracy or inherited nobility, and consequently had no native crests or emblems, Americans borrowed armorial designs from their British cousins or made up armorial insignia of their own. Failing this, U.S. designers incorporated portraits, flags and other patriotic designs into their Chinese tableware.

We can research this trade quite easily from the many vessels that sank and whose cargo has been recovered in the last 40 to 50 years. The recovery of these porcelains has become a mini-industry, with 50 or more ships raised annually by enterprising syndicates.

Earlier this year the Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled an exhibition of more than 80 examples of the most rare and luxurious Chinese porcelains. Among the attractions is a sample plate from George Washington's service. Martha Washington had her own Chinese service especially designed.

With the extended delivery time and the ever-present chance of breakage, buyers would make sure to order "spares." On display is a dinner set numbering more than 200 pieces, which belonged to the Samuel Chase family of Baltimore.

Among the early examples shown at the Metropolitan is a bottle inspired by Venetian "latticino glass," which quickly found acclaim in all parts of Europe. Many of the designs on Chinese porcelain were copied from engravings, prints, wallpaper and paintings. An outstanding example is a flower basket design by the French painter Jean Baptiste Monnoyer (1634-1699), which was avidly sought on the Scottish market. A punch bowl with a faithful rendering of New York harbor was a gift by General Morton to the city of New York on July 4, 1812.

Eventually, the Europeans developed their own porcelain. The Dresden Meissen Company of Germany devised a combination of clay and glass that resulted in beautiful porcelain in the early 1700s, which was nevertheless quite costly and limited in supply. Not until the end of the century was Meissen available in any quantity and at a reasonable price comparable to what the Chinese charged. The British improved upon the Meissen mix by adding bone ash to the formula. The result: bone china.

Elegantly installed, this exhibition is the subject of the museum's Winter 2003 Bulletin, written by Met curators Clare Le Corbeiller and Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.