In the wonderfully rich and varied history of Chinese ceramics, famille verte porcelain is considered by many to be amongst its most exquisite. Literally ‘green family’, famille verte was so named by French art historian Albert Jacquemart whose classification of ceramics in the 1860s according to the colour of the enamel used remains in use to this day and includes famille jaune (yellow), famille rose (red) and famille noire (black).
Unusually for most types of wares, famille verte Chinese porcelain (typically known in China as wucai, or ‘five colours’) can be dated very accurately to Kangxi, the fourth Emperor of the Qing dynasty whose reign of 61 years between 1661 and 1722 makes him the longest reigning emperor in Chinese history. More specifically, the zenith of famille verte production was during a four-decade period between 1685 and 1725 with the majority of pieces including the famed famille verte ginger jars being made at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen, China’s ‘porcelain city.’
Made with a highly refined paste resulting in an exceptionally fine grade of ceramic ware, famille verte Chinese porcelain is identifiable by it’s vivid green enamels and polychromatic overglaze colours including stunning yellow, red, blue and black and much less common but equally as beautiful, gold. It’s largely due to the nature of the glaze that famille verte porcelain is renowned for its unique iridescence and translucence, perhaps why it was so highly prized and desirable by late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century European consumers and remains so today.
Chinese porcelain famille verte, wucai large dish with flat everted rim, painted in the centre with three semi-clad women fighting with equestrian warriors with equestrian generals in the foreground and a general and minister watching over the battle scene with a flag bearer, the flag with two characters, san jun, in gilt, all amongst rockwork encircled by six river landscape reserves on a diaper ground, the underside with an artemisia leaf within a double ring in underglaze blue.
A pair of Chinese porcelain famille verte rouleau vases, each painted with four central roundels representing the four seasons, peony, lotus, chrysanthemum and prunus, and each with a pair of different birds including mandarin ducks encircled by scrolling branches with lotus flower heads between stylised chrysanthemum with reverse pomegranate, above a band of lappets and beneath a wide band of mallow and tree peony on a continuous scrolling branch with leaves and gilt scrolls at the shoulder, the neck with two square panels with chamfered corners one with a pheasant amongst camellia the other with a kingfisher amongst tree peony between interlocked lotus flower heads and beneath stylised iron-red and gilt berries on the galleried rim, the underside with an underglaze blue double ring.
Chinese porcelain famille verte, wucai deep saucer dish, painted with the three friends of winter, sanyou, pine, prunus and bamboo in blue and yellow enamel peach shape reserves, all on a rich green ground painted as a large open leaf with a naturalistic margin, the underside as a stylised flowerhead, the base with a flower mark in underglaze blue within a double ring.
Chinese porcelain famille verte, wucai cylindrical brushpot painted with three star gods, Fuxing looking up at a bat in flight amongst rockwork, Luxing holding a hu tablet beneath the moon in a fenced landscape, and Kuixing standing on one leg on a leaping dragon-headed fish above crested waves and central rock while holding an ingot and brush, all on a seed green ground with bamboo, peach, persimmon, prunus, daisy, orchid, lotus and other plants, the underside with a wide unglazed band and recessed glazed button.
Chinese porcelain famille verte, wucai miniature rouleau vase, painted on the body with a standing lady holding a basket of flowers beside a young boy holding a lotus flower suspended on a wand, beside a table with books and a brush, in a continuous landscape scene with rockwork fence and two stools, with iron-red leaf and round seal and a square seal, the shoulder with reserves of prunus flowers on a geometric green ground, the neck with sprays of bamboo.
Pair of Chinese famille verte biscuit porcelain large models of seated Buddhist lions on openwork rectangular stands, the male with a reticulated ball of cash-pattern simulating a brocade ball under his front left raised paw, the female with a cub climbing up her front raised right paw, each covered on the body in a translucent pale green glaze with relief hair work to the mane and spine heightened in dark green and blue enamel, their faces in pale yellow with wang-characters on their foreheads, the upright tails with aubergine glaze, the stands with peony, chrysanthemum, magnolia, camellia, prunus, lotus and pinks on a speckled green ground, each with two butterflies. The flat underside unglazed with muslin effect. 14 inches, 35.7 cm high. Early Kangxi, circa 1680.
Chinese porcelain famille verte, wucai, square form bowl with chamfered foliate corners, painted on each side with different scenes from the Romance of The Western Chamber; Zhang Sheng climbing the wall to visit Cui Yingying while her maid Hong Niang interrupts; Zhang Sheng seated at a table giving a letter to Hong Niang to deliver; the lovers meeting under the new moon and stars on a date arranged by Hong Niang who peeps through the window; and Zhang Sheng talking to Hong Niang with his male servant listening behind a screen decorated with a sun above waves, all between prunus and bamboo branches, the interior painted in the well with a scholar seated on a carpet between a stack of tied books and a wrapped qin, beneath a band of lotus flowerhead and butterfly reserved on a green diaper ground.
Chinese porcelain famille verte, wucai baluster vase of Guanyin form with tall flaring neck, painted on the entire body with an abundance of flowers and foliage including iron-red tree peony and a long gnarled prunus tree, tall leafy branches of bamboo, pine, grasses and elaborate leaves, amongst pierced rockwork with a butterfly in flight, all beneath a ruyi-head band at the rim, the base glazed white with a double ring in underglaze blue.
A pair of Chinese porcelain famille verte saucer dishes painted with four fan-shaped panels of fish amongst aquatic plants, on a scrolling yellow ground heightened with open-winged phoenixes, beneath a border of six butterfly panels on a dotted-green and floral ground, the underside with a continuous yellow and green border, the base with flowerhead mark in underglaze-blue within a double ring.
A pair of Chinese porcelain famille verte ginger jars and covers, painted with water lilies and lotus leaves, painted in iron-red, aubergine, green and blue-enamel, amongst ducks swimming in iron-red waves, with birds flying above, the shoulder with an iron-red floral band, repeated on the cover rim below a band of scrolling flowers and foliage, the knop with gilt head.
A pair of ‘Chinese-taste’ famille verte table-screens of rectangular form with chamfered corners, one side with a figure standing on a river bank within a mountainous river landscape scene containing buildings and pine trees, the reverse with books, vessels and a vase with flowers, one with a hanging lantern, the other with a standing bird on a perch, all surrounded by a raised border containing four panels of enclosed chrysanthemums on a diaper ground.
Pair of Chinese porcelain famille verte saucer dishes each with chrysanthemum fluted body and foliate rim, painted with different pairs of birds with one in flight and one perched amongst flowering branches of prunus and camellia, beneath a border with butterflies and flowering plants including chrysanthemum, peony, aster and prunus on a seed green ground, the underside plain, the base with a zhi mark within a double square and a double ring.
Chinese porcelain wucai, famille verte brush pot, bitong, painted on the exterior with four carp, one in blue enamels with green fins and tail, one in green enamels with blue fins and tail, a leaping carp in iron-red and a smaller carp in white enamel with green fins and tail, all amongst aquatic plants, weeds, grass and roe, the base unglazed with a small recessed white glazed centre.
A Chinese porcelain wucai, ko-akai plate with flat everted rim painted in the centre with Putai seated on an elaborate rug wearing a yellow and turquoise robe, between two cranes in flight and two lingzhi, underglaze blue and iron red ruyi clouds, encircled by further ruyi heads and clouds, the base with an underglaze blue ring with a mark that reads Tian Xia Tai Ping, "peace under heaven".
A pair of Chinese porcelain famille verte models of a European couple, the man standing in front of rock work with arms extended, his right hand holding a hat, his left hand a scroll, wearing a long wig extending over his shoulder resting on a yellow robe with green shou characters, trimmed with black flowers on a green ground, an iron red sash painted with prunus blossom, his trousers also iron-red with black enamel shoes. The lady, with high-piled curling hair and cloth cowl, standing with left arm extended, wearing a long yellow dress painted with black flowers and scrolling foliage, her bodice and skirt in green adorned with flowers, her apron iron red painted with a bird in the clouds.
A Chinese-taste porcelain famille rose/verte bottle vase, ping, with pear shaped body and tall cylindrical neck, painted in bright enamels with a continuous scene of a yellow breasted bird perched on a branch of bamboo amongst fruiting and flowering branches, on which a grasshopper sits on one leaf, with three flying insects.
A Chinese porcelain famille verte teapot and cover of ribbed 'bamboo' form, the tall arch-shape handle of ribbed bamboo form, the spout of shallow 's' form, the body ribs painted with vertical alternating panels enclosing flowering branches between aubergine and green ribs, heightened with black enamel, the short straight neck with iron red band of scrolls, the cover also ribbed with alternating green an aubergine, all standing on three short biscuit feet.
A pair of Chinese porcelain famille verte bottle vases with ovoid bodies, garlic topped slender necks and flared rims, each painted with four panels; peony and butterflies with insects, chrysanthemum with butterflies and insects, alternating with panels of 'hundred antiques' including; vases, censers, books, wrapped qin, weiqi board and counter holders and ruyi sceptre, the shoulders with band of hexagonal diaper beneath a ruyi headband, above flowers on a seed green ground, the garlic mouths with lappets and an iron-red ground mallow flowerhead band at the rim.
Further information on Famille Verte
As well as dishes, bowls, plates vases and figurines, the famille verte ginger jar was among a collection of more luxurious items that included monteiths (large ornamental bowls used for cooling wine glasses) made for the export market. But as was commonplace, the very finest pieces of famille verte porcelain, including a number of magnificent famille verte ginger jars, were reserved for the Imperial court.
Famille verte Chinese porcelain showed off the enamellers’ skill and included exceptionally detailed depictions of flowers, animals, figurative scenes and landscapes. In addition, many are based on ancient Chinese literary sources and they would painstakingly copy the woodcut illustrations used in books. Perhaps the most famous literary depiction on famille verte porcelain, including famille verte ginger jars, is from the Romance of the Western Chamber written by Yuan dynasty playwright Wang Shifu in the thirteenth century about a young couple who fell in love in secret without parental approval, a book that is still immensely popular today.