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.
Pair of Chinese porcelain famille verte, wucai biscuit table screens of rectangular form with chamfered corners, each with a figure standing on a riverbank in a mountainous river landscape scene with buildings and pine trees beneath a red sun, recessed within a yellow glazed border and surrounded by lotus flower reserves on a seed green ground, the reverse with bogu tu, ‘100 antiques’, books, censers, brush pots, vases of lotus flowers and peacock feathers, hanging lantern and a perch with a bird, within a recessed border surrounded by lotus flower reserves on a diaper ground.
Chinese imperial porcelain famille verte, wucai saucer dish thinly potted with upright rim, painted with a standing lady with one arm tucked into her elegant ruyi-cloud patterned robes, beside a table with censer, bowl, books and a vase with two peacock feathers, with an iron-red openwork stool at her side.
Chinese porcelain famille verte, wucai rouleau vase painted with a scene from Cailou Ji (The Bunted Loft), in which the young impoverished scholar Lü Mengzheng, is seated on the edge of a well head dressed in patchwork robes and will shortly catch the embroidered ball thrown by the wealthy heiress, Liu Yue’e. She is depicted standing on the balcony in front of a table and a landscape screen beside her attendants, with a multitude of scholar suiters standing beneath, all amongst pine trees, wutong, rockwork and the roof of a pavilion, beneath a wide band on the shoulder with love birds, their open wings and beaks touching on a floral diaper on two different floral diaper grounds, the neck with two panels each with a bird perched on a branch amongst aster, bamboo and pinks, with an iron-red seal of zhushi ju, ‘the lodge of bamboo and rock’, beneath the gilt sun, all on a cash diaper ground, the upright galleried rim with a triangular diaper, the base with a green glazed wash.
Pair of Chinese porcelain famille verte, wucai dated vases of meiping form, each painted with a scene of a provincial governor being reassigned and departing to his assigned post. In the first scene, two local bearded dignitaries kneel in front of the governor and present a gilt jue containing wine and a new pair of boots for him to take with him as he moves on, leaving behind an old pair symbolising his enduring affection for the local people; on the companion vase, the governor is kneeling while another official reads an imperial edict probably with his reassignment instruction, both in continuous interior scenes in front of mountains and crested wave screens, the reverse with rockwork and wutong, beneath a band of chilong dragons at the shoulder, flowerheads, triangular lappets and jewels on the gently flared neck and above a band of prunus flowerheads and leaves on the splayed foot.
Chinese porcelain famille verte, wucai baluster vase of tapered form, with a lady in a sedan chair amongst all her attendants with a warrior and scholar, meeting two kneeling soldiers, one holding a sword by the scabbard, the other holding a banner with a character, ling, ‘order’, with a castle wall in the distance, beneath the sun and clouds in a continuous landscape scene with pine, wutong and rockwork, the shoulder with bamboo reserves on a chrysanthemum flowerhead, leaf and green scroll ground, the gently flaring neck painted with a continuous mountain river landscape scene, with a fisherman beneath the sun, the base glazed white.
Large Chinese porcelain famille verte, wucai brush pot, bitong, painted in a continuous scene without borders, of a flowering large tree peony branch, the blooms in iron-red and yellow on an aubergine branch with leaves in different tones of green beside a large butterfly in flight and rockwork, the interior glazed white, the base with wide unglazed band for the firing and a recessed glazed centre bearing an underglaze blue sealmark of mushi ju, ‘the lodge of wood and rock’, within a single square.
Chinese porcelain famille verte, wucai vase of rouleau form, painted with two magpies perched on a branch amongst flowering chrysanthemum and tropical leaves, beneath butterflies, dragonflies and other insects, mostly in pairs, beneath a wide band at the shoulder with Buddhist lion reserves, each with a ribbon-tied brocade ball on a geometric ground, beneath a single rib on the neck between bands of jewels, ruyi-head, keyfret, scrolls and lappets, with an upright galleried rim, the foot with a band of lappets, the base glazed white with underglaze blue double ring.
A Chinese porcelain famille verte, wucai, brush pot, bitong, painted with three panels of Fuxing, the god of happiness, standing on a rocky promontory, holding a scroll and looking up at an iron-red bat in flight, beside overhanging rockwork; Luxing, the god of wealth, standing and holding up a gilt hu-tablet beside fencing and rockwork and beneath cloud scrolls and the sun; Kuixing, the god of examinations, standing on one leg on the head of a dragon fish emerging from crested waves while holding a brush in one hand and a bushel-measure in the other, his scantly clad torso with a large green ribbon and wearing gilt rings on his ankles, beside a small stack of books, all on an elaborate seed green ground with daisies, lotus, morning glory, prunus, hibiscus, tree peony and bamboo sprays above four clusters of ripe peaches, the foot, rim and interior glazed white, the base with unglazed wide band and recessed glazed centre.
Pair of Chinese porcelain famille verte, wucai saucer dishes thinly potted with upright rims, painted with four fan-shaped panels of carp and a mandarin fi sh swimming amongst smaller fish and aquatic plants, on a yellow ground with phoenix birds amongst blue peony, leaves and scrolls, encircling a central flowerhead and cash diaper band, all within a border of six butterfly reserves on a dense prunus flowerhead and seed green ground, the underside with a triangular and flowerhead border, the base with flowerhead mark in underglaze-blue within a double ring.
Chinese porcelain famille verte, wucai deep bowl painted with four circular medallions with birds and insects amongst flowering plants including peony, prunus, pink, daisy, tree peony and bamboo, all on a moulded ‘reticulated’ ground with fretwork, gently inset with pale green glaze, above a lappet band, the interior glazed white, the base with a six-character mark of Chenghua within a double ring in underglaze blue.
Chinese porcelain famille verte, wucai brush pot, bitong, painted with two panels, with two elegant ladies standing beside a pair of chickens, next to a table and stools in a fenced landscape scene, with a rockwork table supporting a censer and cup with two wine jars on the grass, beside insects beneath the red sun, the reverse with a mountainous river landscape scene, with a viewing pavilion and fishing boat beneath the yellow sun, the base with a wide unglazed biscuit band encircling a recessed glazed circle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.