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 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.
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.
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 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 Chinese porcelain famille verte biscuit fruit pyramid group in luminous sancai tones, with ripe pomegranate, peaches and finger citrons, all on an octagonal dish, the base unglazed.
A Chinese porcelain famille verte plate painted in the centre with a boy holding a continuous branch of flowering peony in blue, aubergine and iron-red enamel, encircled by a floral band in the cavetto and a wide lappet floral band on the rim, the underside with four precious objects, pearl, lozenge, music stones and chime, all in green enamel, tied with an iron red ribbon, the base with a lozenge mark in underglaze blue in a double ring.
A pair of Chinese porcelain famille verte saucer dishes with openwork cash border, painted in the centre with two standing ladies beside a boy in a fenced garden scene with overhanging wutong branches.
A Chinese porcelain famille verte hexagonal teacup and saucer, the saucer painted in the centre with a table displaying precious objects, vase with peacock, flower and coral, encircled by a border with three panels of boys and three panels of a bird perched on a branch, the cup similarly decorated, the underside of each with a ‘G’ mark within a double ring in underglaze blue.
Pair of Chinese porcelain famille verte large two handled fish bowls, painted on both sides with branches of flowering peony amongst daisies, with chrysanthemum sprays beneath the biscuit lion mask handles, all between iron-red bands of stylised leaves and chrysanthemum flower heads, the waist with reserves of flowers on a geometric iron-red and gilt ground with chrysanthemum flower heads, each interior painted with forty-one carp, two shrimp and two crabs amongst aquatic plants, all beneath the flat everted lipped rim, painted with reserves of fish alternating with shrimp on a geometric cash diaper ground with chrysanthemum flower heads and scrolls on the rim.
Chinese porcelain famille verte rouleau vase with high shoulder, cylindrical neck and galleried rim, painted on the body in a continuous scene with Xi Wang-mu, The Queen Mother of the West, descending from the Jasper Pool in the clouds with six of her attendants, one holding the giant peach of immortality, others with flute, cymbals, a qin and peacock feather fan, beside her a phoenix bird in flight, approaching the Emperor who wears yellow robes of dragon design, in his palace with generals, dignitaries and attendants amongst rockwork, wutong, banana plant and cranes all beneath a gilt sun, the shoulder with precious object reserves on a geometric ground, the neck with three medallions of Fuxing, seated holding a hu tablet beside a stack of books on a yellow fu-character, Shoulao, in a peach between a crane and scrolls on a green shou-character, and Luxing, seated between a deer and wine jar on an aubergine lu-character beneath the galleried rim with green keyfrets, the base glazed white.
Chinese porcelain famille verte rouleau vase with high shoulder and galleried rim, painted on the body with twelve rectangular panels with chamfered corners of two boys holding baskets amongst rockwork; fisherman in a mountainous river landscape; “golden pheasant" standing on rockwork amongst peony and magnolia, "100 antiques", qilin galloping amongst rocks; chickens beneath prunus; geese beside a river; deer amongst pine and rockwork; butterflies and insects in flight; horses grazing amongst rockwork; tiger looking up at a dragon in the sky in pursuit of a flaming pearl; a phoenix bird beside ducks and other birds looking back at a pair of cranes beneath wutong, interspersed between oval panels drawn within branches depicting flowers alluding to the twelve months, all on a seed-green ground with flower heads above a lotus leaf band, the shoulder with four shou-character reserves on a diaper band, the neck with two panels of a scholar standing beside a bridge in a mountainous river landscape beneath the sun and clouds and a night scene with an equestrian scholar being followed by his attendant in a mountainous river landscape, all on a hexagonal diaper ground with circular floral reserves. The base glazed white with a double-ring in underglaze blue.
Chinese porcelain famille verte, large saucer dish with gently flared rim, painted with two seated ladies reeling silk beside a large open window in a covered building with thatched roof with a child watching on, another standing lady holding a candlestick beside a tearful child grabbing her robes while walking on a fenced path all within a walled compound, the base of the walls with crackled brickwork, the foreground with a stream of water, branches and rockwork, all in an evening scene beneath a new moon, stars, ruyi clouds and overhanging wutong branches, a forty-two-character, seven-column poem with an iron-red and gilt two-character seal and leaf mark. The base with a zhi, 'made' mark within a double square, all within a double ring in underglaze blue.
Chinese porcelain famille verte bottle vase with tall cylindrical neck and lipped rim, painted on the body with eight lappets, enclosing open-winged butterflies amongst prunus, peony, lotus, pinks, chrysanthemum and aster on a seed-green ground and four with large chrysanthemum flower heads which suspend different stylised lanterns enclosing a horse, bird and prunus, a sage and a bird and magnolia, all on geometric iron-red cross-hatch grounds, between further pendants of precious objects and lotus bud branches, the shoulder with bands of ruyi, keyfret, diaper and lotus petals, the neck with branches of lotus flowers beneath pendant tassels and jewels and a keyfret band at the rim, the base glazed white.
Pair of Chinese famille verte biscuit porcelain groups of Middle Eastern merchants seated astride standing Buddhist lions, each with open mouth and upright tail, the merchants wearing peeked striped caps with detailed hair-work to their faces, and wearing harlequin style jackets, the yellow-ground lions with moulded trappings, a bell and flames to their bodies all on openwork rectangular shaped stands with chamfered corners, heightened in iron-red and gilt.
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.