Somehow the characteristic blue and white decorations of Dutch Delftware continues to fascinate us: whether we look at fashion, interior design, or contemporary arts & craft, the many shades of blue against a white background keep appearing in many different shapes and forms. It seems we can all agree that the colour schemes and decoration patterns of these traditional wares have something truly appealing about them, but there is also the rich history behind these beautiful objects that attracts our interest.
In a recent trip to the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, I visited their continuous exhibition Delftware / Wonderware where the traditional delftware is – and aptly so – presented as “the paragon of Dutch prosperity in the Golden Age”. Already in the 16th century, a small number of Chinese porcelain was introduced to Europe, but it was not until the early years of the 17th century that porcelain was imported in great quantities from China to the Netherlands thanks to the Dutch East India Trading Company (VOC). Making porcelain requires china clay, also called kaolin, which is not found in the Netherlands. Thus, unable to imitate the high-quality Chinese wares, the Dutch came up with an imitation of porcelain made of local clay. Inspired by the exotic motifs and colours of Chinese porcelain, the Dutch tin-glazed earthenwares aimed to copy the Chinese products as well as they could. The factories, especially those in the city of Delft, were able to provide an affordable alternative to the expensive (imported) porcelain which had an enormous influence on the Dutch way of life as documented in contemporary painting. What may seem like a one-sided appropriation of Chinese ware, however, was a complex economic relationship: China started producing Delftware, also known as Chine de commande, for the Dutch market.
At the moment, the Gemeentemuseum is also showing an exhibition on the history of Chinese Porcelain and Chinese Character, that heavily inspired the Dutch products. The exhibition sheds light on the multi-faceted quality of Chinese porcelain decoration, which is far more than simply ornamental. Perhaps one of the most impressive pieces shown in the exhibition is the Flower Pyramid (c. 1695) made by the ‘Greek A’ factory in Delft. Stacked flower holders like this one were intended to display tulips and other flowers in Dutch grand houses. This is an example of both the Dutch fascination with Chinese visual language and the appropriation of exotic forms for the purpose of identity shaping that is characteristic of the Dutch Golden Age.
The rich history of international economic relationships and the age-old appropriation of foreign motifs seem to be mirrored in the many shades of blue and white. The exhibition Chinese Character is on display from 25 March 2017 until 22 October 2017. Furthermore, the Ceramics Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London offers an impressive variety of objects (including outstanding pieces of Delftware) worth exploring!