May
25
2009

Is famille rose porcelain always Chinese?

Famille rose detail from vase, southern China, late 1700s (Photo by dalbera - CC-BY)

Famille rose detail from vase, southern China, late 1700s (Photo by dalbera - CC-BY)

Famille rose decoration for porcelain developed in China around 1720. A new wave of Chinese ceramics using rose and ruby shades in multi-colour designs was greatly admired in Europe. Introduced just before the western craze for oriental style interior decoration peaked in the mid-18th century, plenty was manufactured for export, along with many other Asian arts and crafts.

Chinese dinner services, tea sets, and ornaments were desirable additions to fashionable Georgian homes. Because a good quantity was made for European buyers, it’s not difficult for Western collectors today to find antique famille rose tableware, bowls, vases etc. painted with pink and other colours on a white background. (This is probably the most recognisable famille rose style, though other backgrounds are also possible.)  Richer families ordered custom-made table services from China in the 1700s, as this seemed good value in terms of quality for money until European potters caught up in the 1800s.

There were many efforts in the west to imitate Chinese porcelain in the 1700s, and in the 1800s some potteries offered products reproducing famille rose design. Art historians probably don’t approve, but it’s understandable when people describe a western plate/cup/vase with the right overall look as famille rose – as long as they don’t try to pass off a Victorian teapot as an antique oriental piece from the 1700s.

Creating early famille rose (pink family) ceramics involved both technical and artistic innovation. Chinese potters discovered they could use gold to create a new set of pink and red shades. At the same time they were experimenting with other enamels that, like the new pink, could be painted on to porcelain after its first firing in the kiln, and then fused on to the surface by a second firing at low temperatures.

A new white enamel was an important part of these advances, allowing varied tones – from deep to pastel – depending on how much white was in the mix. These developments meant that Chinese ceramic artists could work with a particular over-glaze colour scheme – a palette – that was given the name famille rose in 19th century Europe because of its emphasis on pink.

Other colour sets associated with particular periods of Chinese ceramic design were given other French “colour family” names, like famille verte for a palette emphasising green.

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