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April 2021 Seminar

Summary of Lectures

Gifts Worthy of the Shogun:
Nabeshima Porcelain and Other Wares
in the Macdonald Collection
Daniel Chen

When the Ming Empire collapsed in 1644, Dutch traders in Asia sought new suppliers to satisfy the European craze for porcelain.  Japan, having only begun porcelain production in the early 17th century, seized the opportunity to become a new source for the global porcelain trade.  The potters first adapted their wares to imitate the Chinese, but quickly developed a confident and unique Japanese aesthetic.  European collectors soon came to admire and prefer Japanese porcelain brilliantly decorated in the Kakiemon style, with such designs known in the West as 'Hob in the Well' and 'Lady in the Pavilion.'  In Japan, however, a very different kind of porcelain was prized.  Nabeshima porcelain made exclusively for the Tokugawa shogun was reserved for Japan's elite class.  Its meticulous design and perfect form are little known to audiences outside of Japan.  In the 18th century, the European taste for "old Japan china" was widespread.  European porcelain manufactories, initiated by kings and princes, artisans, and merchants, sought to emulate the striking colors and refined qualities of Japanese porcelain. Transcending its functional use, porcelain became statement pieces showcasing power, wealth, status, and connoisseurship.  

This lecture series will introduce and discuss rare examples of the earliest produced Japanese porcelain in blue and white, known as Shoki-Imari, as well as polychrome decorated Ko-Kutani, Nabeshima, and Kakiemon wares, and discuss the origins, development, and consumption of Japanese and Japanese-inspired porcelain of the 17th and 18th century drawing from the Macdonald Collection in the Gardiner Museum, Toronto.



Lecture 1:  Legendary Beginnings: Shoki-Imari and Ko-Kutani Porcelain

Prior to the 17th century, Japan relied on foreign trade, primarily with China, for the consumption of porcelain.  This changed around 1610 with the discovery of kaolin deposits in Arita.  Key figures contributed to Japan's ability to quickly produce a suitable substitute for Chinese porcelain for both a domestic and foreign market.  With the decline and eventual collapse of China's Ming dynasty (1364-1644), Japan became a leading supplier of porcelain, which introduced further investment and innovation contributing to the development of polychrome decoration found on early Ko-Kutani porcelain.  This lecture explores the origins of Japanese porcelain production by looking at the development of form and decoration in early Japanese wares.



Lecture 2:  Gifts Worthy of the Shogun: Nabeshima Porcelain

In the Edo period (1615-1868), Japan experienced a new era of peace and stability under the governance of the Tokugawa shogunate, based in Edo (modern day Tokyo).  To maintain control over his subjects, the shogun required vassal lords called daimyo to present goods and to reside during alternate years between their home and the de facto ruling capital.  Sumptuary regulations controlled public decorum, affecting all manner of behavior such as dining, where Nabeshima porcelain was used and appreciated beyond its utilitarian function.

Nabeshima porcelain was made for the shogun's pleasure, hence its rarity and limited representation in collections outside of Japan.  It is admired for its technical achievement, which required the very best potters and decorators whose skill and livelihood were supported by the Nabeshima daimyo.  The Macdonald Collection features 17th century examples of Nabeshima porcelain from its early to peak periods of productions, reflecting the development of form and decoration characteristic of this type.  This lecture will discuss the significance of Nabeshima porcelain and its use at court.




Lecture 3:  “Prodigious, Fine Old Japan”: The Legacy of Kakiemon

The consumption of oriental porcelain in Europe dates back as early as the 14th century, beginning with the introduction of Chinese porcelain.  Its properties of translucency and impermeability elicited both fascination and admiration as a luxury object afforded only by the nobility.  By the 17th century, direct trade with China and Japan supplied porcelain for insatiable collectors, most notably Augustus the Strong (1670-1730), the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.  His self-described "maladie de porcelaine" spurred the creation of the Meissen manufactory near Dresden after the discovery of the recipe for hard-paste porcelain in Europe by the alchemist, Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719).  With the introduction of Meissen the secret of porcelain production soon spread across Europe.  The earliest examples featured designs inspired by Chinese and Japanese prototypes, where the Japanese Kakiemon style was particularly popular and widely adapted at manufactories from Meissen in Germany to Chantilly in France and Bow and Chelsea in London.  This lecture will introduce rare examples of Japanese-inspired European porcelain in the Macdonald Collection and will discuss the application and widespread desire for Kakiemon porcelain from the 18th century to today.

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