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: An Example of Sung Celadon


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
In the eighteenth century, when the arts of China first became popularly known to the western world and all Europe went on a chinoiserie binge, it was the products of contemporary China that captivated a people just discovering the mysteries of a strange new civilization. Porcelains, lacquer, jades, and ivories constituted the chief exports from the East and it was inevitable that the Chinese, in their desire for trade, should have produced for the eastern market objects either commanded by that market or which they felt would appeal to it. Thus the art of China, as introduced to the occident in the eighteenth century, was not truly representative. Europeans looked upon it as fantastic, charming, and fashionable. It was not until much later, as late even as the present century, that many of the great arts of China began to be known to the west. Now, as time passes and the achievements of the Chinese become yearly better known through western collections, it is evident that Chinese art as eighteenth-century Europeans knew it represented merely the last phase of a long and splendid tradition.Of high importance among objects that have become more widely known and appreciated by westerners are the ceramic wares of the Sung dynasty. The Institute has lately had the good fortune to acquire an outstanding example of Lung Ch’üan celadon with the smooth, translucent bluish-green glaze so desirable in Sung celadons. The dish is finished at the edge with a narrow rim and is decorated in the bottom with two fish in relief under the glaze. The outside is carved in a design of leaves; a method of decoration frequently met with in Chinese celadons.The body of the whole is a greyish-white clay that shows up on the edges where the glaze is thin. It has been fired to such a highly vitrified state that the bowl gives forth a clear musical note when struck with the finger; a characteristic by which connoisseurs often judge early Chinese porcelains. The high iron content of the clay is indicated by the rusty color of the unglazed foot rim. The element of iron played a large part in the coloring of porcelains of the Sung period, when monochrome glazes enjoyed a great vogue among collectors. Not only in the Lung Ch’üan district, which was famous for its celadons, but in other places as well iron was largely responsible for the exquisite colors produced by Sung potters. These colors were obtained not by enamels under the glaze, as was later the case, but by the incorporation of coloring oxides in the glaze itself. Iron, which was capable of producing a wide range of colors, was introduced by means of ferruginous clay. By this direct method the Sung potters achieved, in Lung Ch’üan celadons, a thick translucent glaze that varies in tone from pale sea-green to olive-green, with a variety of tints in between.It is little wonder that these wares enjoyed the great favor they did. Chinese collectors had a positive mania for the finer examples, while the heavier, coarser pieces were much admired in India, Persia, and Turkey. Occasionally they were to be found even further to the west, and the name celadon is said to have derived from a character in d’Urfé’s pastoral romance L’Astreé; the shepherd Celadon, whose grey-green costume suggested the color of this ware.Today Lung Ch’üan celadons are among the most sought after of all Chinese porcelain. They represent one of the highest achievements of the Sung dynasty; the golden age of Chinese civilization when poetry, painting, and the crafts flourished under the patronage of enlightened emperors. Marco Polo’s description of Hangchow, the capital to which the court retired when north China was invaded by the Tartars in 1127, gives a vivid picture of the advanced culture under which the Chinese were living when Europe was still in its medieval stage of development. It is from the arts and poetry of that period, however, that the truest picture of the Chinese people is to be had. And it is because of their power to evoke a fraction of this picture that such isolated fragments of Sung civilization as the Institute’s bowl become doubly precious to people of another age.Referenced Work of Art
  1. Celadon bowl decorated in relief. Chinese, Lung Ch’üan district, Sung dynasty (960-1279). Dunwoody Fund
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Source: "An Example of Sung Celadon," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 32, no. 33 (December, 1943): 116-118.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009