Review by Ronald W. Fuchs II
Famille Verte: Chinese Porcelain in Green Enamels

Christiaan J. A. Jörg, Famille Verte: Chinese Porcelain in Green Enamels. Schoten, Belgium: BAI/Groninger Museum, 2011. 192 pp.; 250 color and 9 b/w illus., bibliographical references. €29.50.

Porcelain decorated in the famille verte palette has long been viewed as one of China’s finest and most luxurious export wares from its long history of ceramic production. But despite the ware’s importance, there has never before been a publication specifically devoted to famille verte. Dr. Christiaan Jörg, retired curator of the Groninger Museum, professor of art history at the University of Leiden, and one of the most prolific scholars of export porcelain working today, makes a significant contribution toward filling this gap with his book on the subject.

This catalog accompanied an exhibit mounted in 2011 at the Groninger Museum in Groningen, the Netherlands. The pieces in the exhibit were drawn primarily from the four major public collections of Chinese porcelain in the Netherlands: the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Municipal Museum in The Hague, the Princessehof Ceramics Museum in Leeuwarden, and the Groninger Museum, with additional pieces coming from the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam and the J. M. van Diepen Foundation. The abundance of famille verte pieces in these collections reflects the importance of Chinese porcelain in the Dutch national patrimony and allows Jörg to illustrate the full depth and breadth of famille verte.

Famille verte (French for “green family”) refers to porcelain decorated with a group of overglaze enamel colors dominated by a bright, translucent green along with iron red, yellow, black, and a purple-brown that was produced between 1685 and 1725 in Jingdezhen, the famed porcelain city of China. Famille verte porcelain was highly prized in Europe and was seen by many late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century consumers as the most prized and desirable Chinese porcelain available. It eventually fell from favor about 1725, eclipsed by a new group of enamel colors, which became known as the famille rose colors. These had been developed in the early 1720s and included a rose red and an opaque white that allowed for shading of other colors and more naturalistic, complex depictions of flora, fauna, and figures.

Though seemingly straightforward, the term famille verte is somewhat problematic. It was coined in 1862 by the French ceramic historian Albert Jacquemart (who also coined the name famille rose). Ceramic scholars, Jacquemart among them, defined and grouped Chinese ceramics according to the material with which they were familiar—that is, predominantly porcelain that had been produced for export in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were not as aware of the overglaze enamel-decorated porcelain produced earlier, or the broad range of forms, designs, and decorative motifs produced for the Chinese domestic and non-European export markets. Traditional Chinese ceramic typologies describe ceramics decorated with overglaze enamels most closely corresponding to famille verte as wucai (five-colored) or yingcai (hard colors).

Jörg’s book is arranged in a traditional format, with individual catalog entries for 178 objects. The introductory essay places famille verte within a broader context and provides a brief overview of the development and use of overglaze enamels on Chinese porcelain, from their development during the Tang dynasty (618–907), and their increasing popularity during the Ming (1368–1644) and early Qing dynasties (1644–1912), to their flowering during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662–1722). The author also discusses how famille verte was made and how it fit into the export trade.

One of Jörg’s insights is how the lack of underglaze blue or European designs on famille verte pieces may show how the porcelain industry in Jingdezhen operated. Enamels seem to have been painted in workshops unconnected to the potters who shaped, glazed, and fired pieces. As a result, the enamel workshops were not in direct contact with the merchants who commissioned pieces destined for the European export market and who could have provided Western designs to copy in enamels.

The individual catalog entries are grouped into twelve sections, each with an introductory essay. The sections have been defined according to design, form, usage, or market, such as “Flowers, Animals and Long Elizas,” “European and Other Foreign Shapes,” and “Verte for Asian Markets.” Jörg describes these divisions as “informal” and “highly personal,” but they are logical and reasonable. Each entry is illustrated, some with multiple images, and accompanied by text discussing the piece’s significance. Attention is paid to the origins and meaning of many of the Chinese designs, such as the Romance of the Western Chamber, one of China’s most famous dramatic works. Each of its twenty-four scenes is illustrated in the book, providing an easily accessible source for a popular design of export porcelain.

Though this is the first publication specifically devoted to famille verte, the subject has of course been covered in other publications. Many of the pieces illustrated here are among the finest in Dutch collections and have been discussed previously in print. But if the objects and ideas presented here are not necessarily brand-new discoveries, the synthesis of so much material and information into a single source makes this book an invaluable tool for scholars, curators, collectors, and dealers. It is sure to be a standard reference and a must-have for any Chinese porcelain library.

Ronald W. Fuchs II
Curator, Reeves Collection, Washington and Lee University 

Ceramics in America 2013