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 baluster vase of guanyin zun form with cylindrical ribbed neck and gently flared rim, painted on the body with a continuous scene of twelve ladies at various pursuits, about to read a book, carrying an elaborate wrapped qin and playing a game of weiqi in a terrace scene in front of a large wave-screen, one lady holding a gilt fan, another a gilt ruyi-sceptre, and another holding an iron-red and gilt censer, one lady looking out of a window beside a young male attendant, all amongst wutong, trees, flowering plants, shrubs and rockwork with iron-red ruyi-head clouds, the shoulder with hexagonal flowerhead diaper, the neck with butterflies and insects in flight amongst flowering chrysanthemum and peony, the base glazed white.
Chinese famille verte biscuit porcelain water dropper, shuizhu, of a recumbent piebald horse on a green glazed leaf-form base, with head turned to the side beneath its long flowing segmented mane and forelock falling between the pricked ears, the front legs bent as if about to stand, covered on the body with dark brown enamel patches on a pale cream translucent ground, the back with open oval aperture, the tail and mane heightened in pale aubergine glaze, the bridle and hair to the small pastern heightened in yellow, the base unglazed.
A Chinese porcelain famille verte rectangular tea caddy and cover, painted with lotus leaves, flower-heads, aquatic plants and a rhizome, beneath iron-red insects in flight the reverse with flowering chrysanthemum, pierced rockwork with a butterfly and insects in flight, the two shorter sides each with flowering branches of morning glory, the shoulder with aster flowers, branches and rockwork, all the panels outlined with a green glazed frame and supported on four raised bracket feet, the cover with peony and camellia.
A Chinese porcelain famille verte chrysanthemum dish, painted in the centre with the edge of a balconied terrace with a vase of chrysanthemum flowers within a blue lozenge border, encircled by four roundels of the three friends of winter, sanyou, pine, prunus, and bamboo, with four bottle vases with blue ground cracked ice and prunus decoration, all amongst precious objects including a wrapped qin, bunches of tied scrolls, weiqi games boards, censers, bowls and covers, lozenges and vases holding coral and ruyi branches, all beneath thirty four prunus flowerheads on each petal, the rim dressed brown. The underside with three camellia branches, the base with underglaze blue lingzhi mark with a double ring.
A set of three Chinese porcelain ko-akae, wucai, polychrome lozenge shape dishes with foliate flutted rims, each painted with a seated figure of Budai, resting against his long staff holding a necklace in his right hand and the edge of his treasure sack, beside the edge of rocky promontory with an overhanging pine tree beneath iron-red cloud within an iron-red border, the rim dressed brown. The base with a two characters mark of Taiping within a double rectangle,
A Chinese porcelain, ko-akai, wucai saucer dish, painted in the centre with chrysanthemum, aster flowers and buds, beneath a six characters couplet, the underside with three pearls, the base with a four-character mark of Tianqi within a double ring in underglaze blue and of the period.
A Chinese porcelain famille verte octagonal faceted tea caddy and cover, painted with four immortals, the wider sides with Lu Dongbin standing on a fish and Dongfang Shuo also on a fish holding his peach, the narrow sides with Han Xiangzi holding his flute and standing on a crab and He Xiangu standing on a shrimp holding her lotus branch, all above crested waves and between ribbon tied precious objects including a music stone, cornucopia and pen beneath a green ground floral band with flower reserves. The rim with traces of original gilt, the flat base unglazed.
A pair of Chinese porcelain famille verte biscuit parrots, each perched on a pierced rockwork base, moulded with a prunus tree, glazed in green, aubergine, lime green, white and yellow, the unglazed beaks and claws with traces of original red pigment.
Pair of Chinese famille verte biscuit porcelain square trays, each with flat rims, painted with a standing phoenix bird on rockwork amongst peony and magnolia, above sprays of bamboo, all within a flat everted rim with a triangular diaper ground in green and yellow, the undersides with four different branches of flowers including prunus and camellia, the bases with four-character marks of Yuhai Tang zhi, 'made for the Hall of the Jade Sea' in black enamel within a double square.
Chinese porcelain famille verte large deep saucer dish painted in vivid bright and fresh enamels with Yingying resting on a wutong branch, with her hand placed under her qin, while her maid Hongniang points up at Zhang Sheng playing his qin at a balcony window, while his attendant crouches down, all in a elaborate scene at night beneath stars and a gilt moon, with another building in the distance amongst clouds, the garden below with willow, pine, rockwork and plantain, with a stone table set with a bonsai and a branch of flowering prunus, encircled by a border with eight reserves of precious objects including books, scrolls, ruyi-sceptre, rings, wrapped qin, horn, weiqi games board, counter holders and a branch of coral, mostly tied with ribbons, all dispersed between different geometric grounds, the base with an underglaze blue leaf mark within a double ring.
Pair of Chinese porcelain famille verte plates, each brightly and freshly painted with the young scholar scholar, Zhang, dressed in blue robes riding a yellow horse with his attendant close by, arriving at the walled monastery, the ground decorated with a table, scroll pot, censer, gu with flowers, further scrolls, books and a weiqi board, encircled by a ruyi-band, the flat everted rim with floral reserves in ruyi-head panels dispersed between ‘a hundred antiques’, bogu, including books, scrolls, censer, ruyi, wrapped qin, weiqi boards, all tied with ribbons, the underside with prunus and camellia flower sprays, the base with a ding vessel mark within a double ring in underglaze blue.
Chinese famille noire biscuit porcelain hexagonal openwork teapot and cover, the reticulated body modeled with six high-relief panels of the ‘Three Friends of Winter’, pine, prunus and bamboo, sanyou, above a moulded band of iron red lotus petals, beneath a green ground flowerhead band at the shoulder, with ruyi-heads on cash and floral grounds in aubergine and yellow on a hexagonal faceted neck, the body with a rich black enamel ground between a fish form handle and a dragon headed hexagonal spout, the cover reticulated with a branch of flowering prunus with a blue enamel prunus finial.
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.
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.
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.
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.