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Beyond Grandma's dining room: the role porcelain played in global trade history

Posted on 03/19/2020 at 03:00 PM by Adrienne Gennett

Porcelain may seem to be something in your Grandma’s dining room, but it played an exceptionally important role in the history of global trade. On view in the Contemplate Japan exhibition (now closed through April 5th) are both historic Japanese porcelain and the European wares copied by makers inspired by the Japanese.



While ceramics were made in Japan for many centuries, the beautiful thin and translucent porcelain body was not made domestically until 1620. Porcelain had been imported into Japan from China for a few centuries, but there was a great desire to find the clay necessary to make porcelain in Japan. The knowledge and ability to make porcelain was introduced to the Japanese by Korean potters who had come to the country after the late 16th century invasions of Korea by the Japanese. One of these Korean potters found deposits of the types of clays needed to make porcelain around 1610 on the island of Kyushu, near Arita and the port of Imari, which would go become the hub of porcelain production and trade for Japan (later both Arita and Imari would be names used by exporters for the porcelain coming out of Japan).


Early Japanese porcelain was modeled on the underglaze blue examples that had been imported from China. It wasn’t until the 1640s that other enamel colors painted over the glaze began to be used and the Japanese developed their own unique designs and motifs that became exceptionally popular in the West. By the 1650s the porcelain industry grew large and stable enough to meet the ever-growing demand. China was in a period of unrest, affecting their ability to make and export porcelain, an industry they had previously dominated. Japan filled the void with their wares and fully developed the porcelain industry in the country to meet the demands by both domestic and European markets. Although Japan was under an isolationist policy from 1639, both the Dutch and the Chinese continued to trade goods from a small manmade island near Nagasaki and the Dutch pushed the Japanese to export more porcelain to the west.


The use of colored enamels was very popular with Europeans. One of the best known overglaze enameled styles to come out of this period is Kakiemon, which was made at the Kakiemon kiln in Arita by the 1670s, but now stands as both a name for the wares and a style. A pure white and highly refined porcelain clay body (nigoshide) was the hallmark of Kakiemon wares. The hand-painted designs were asymmetrical, with large areas of white. Europeans were enthralled by these beautiful porcelain objects with exotic, yet naturalistic imagery, and many manufacturers on the continent and in England copied the designs after the 1720s, as the Kakiemon kilns closed at that point (later reopening) and yet the demand for this style remained high in the west.
 

IMAGE:

Saucer, probably 17th to 18th century, Japan, porcelain. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 2.3.3b

Platter, c. 1755, Bow Porcelain Manufactory (England, 1744-1776), soft-paste porcelain. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 2.8.57

Covered Sugar Bowl, c. 1735, Meissen Manufactory (Germany, founded 1710-present), porcelain. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 2.6.12ab

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