Qing Dynasty Monochrome Porcelains: Color and Symbolism
Though Chinese appreciation of art objects always centered on the tastes of the imperial court, private collections were also important during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Monochrome porcelains, with their exquisite glazes and elegant shapes, evoked an aesthetic charm whereby one could appreciate a fundamental sense of the material. More diverse monochrome surfaces were available to consumers during the Qing dynasty than ever before.
As Chinese culture spread to the West during the eighteenth century, the French purchased porcelains in monochrome hues to decorate their hotels and châteaux. During the Gilded Age, members of New York’s elite class, such as Charles A. Dana (1819-1897), William T. Walters (1819-1894), Solomon Solis Carvalho (1856-1942) and Thomas B. Clarke (1848-1931) who were captivated by the immense color variety of these objects, began accumulating them in earnest. Accordingly, in an 1890 edition of The Decorator and Furnisher, Ada Cone advised, “The decorator should choose porcelain for color alone. Form is not to be considered, as it is mostly bad or indifferent.”
Color symbolism has long been an important feature of Chinese art and architecture. Yellow is the predominant hue at the Temple of the Earth in Peking, while the Temple of the Sun features red, and a pale greyish blue is prevalent at the Temple of the Moon. Delicate yellow glazes, described as “comparable the yoke of a hen’s egg,” and pure white porcelains, first reserved for imperial use during periods of mourning, became available on the New York art market during the Gilded Age. For example, the beautifully color-illustrated catalogue of oriental art treasures from Yamanaka & Company (1915) features an imperial yellow bottle-shaped vase on its frontispiece. The private collection of Mr. S. S. Carvalho (1914) includes an imperial yellow oviform jar as one of a garniture of three. Both objects date from the reign of K’ang-hsi (1662-1722), whose porcelains are still highly prized by Western collectors. The Thomas B. Clarke sale of “beautiful white glazes” (1918) includes numerous single-color porcelains, many in pure white from the Yung Chêng (1723-1735) and Ch’ien Lung (1736-1795) periods. A richly embossed brilliant white porcelain bottle-shaped Ch’ien Lung vase is illustrated in the Carvalho catalogue.
While Imperial connections raised the value of certain single-color porcelains, other hues were also popular with American collectors. Red glaze porcelains are celebrated because of the range of splendid shades. Langyao hong, known in the West as sang de boeuf or oxblood red, and jiangdou hong called peau de peche or peachbloom are among the most valued. Three extraordinary examples of sang de boeuf with peachbloom tones are illustrated in the Yamanaka catalogue. Yet, the finest peachbloom types have soft velvety glazes in pale pinkish red tones with flushes of moss green and were included in an elite series of eight specific shaped objects for use at the scholar’s writing table. As in the case of the Walters Peach Bloom Vase, American collectors have never hesitated to pay vast sums for good specimens of the color. Coral red glaze (shan hu hong) used iron as its coloring agent. This process resulted in a beautiful shade comparable to coral’s appearance in nature. The hue would have brought to mind the stoppers of snuff bottles and the coral branches that were incorporated into miniature landscapes.
Blue and green monochromes are also prominently featured in Gilded Age auction sales catalogues. The blue hues vary in depth and shade from fairly purplish midnight color to a fragile tint known since the nineteenth century in the West as clair-de-lune (tian qing). Claire-de-lune glazed porcelains frequently mimics the shape of classic peachbloom vessels and the soft shade is equally treasured. Turquoise blue achieved great popularity in China and Europe. Its dark color was popularized under K’ang-hsi, with its lighter shade perfected under Yung-Cheng. Green monochromes can range from rare apple green to a yellowish green called cucumber. Most of these glazes are low fired, with the exception of the true celadon glazes. Celadon wares, usually light emerald in color, have deep roots in the history of Chinese ceramics dating to the Tang and Song dynasties.  Eighteenth century celadon objects often exhibit exceptional delicacy and finesse with immaculate glazes similar to the K’ang-hsi peachblooms.
Single color Chinese porcelains are difficult to date and the varieties of hues would be impossible to categorize. Only a few are mentioned here. Most monochromes collected in the Gilded Age fall under the non-committal phrase, “early eighteenth century” that embraced the Yung Chêng (1723-1735) and Ch’ien Lung (1736-1795) periods. In a recent reputable New York auction, a number of Qing dynasty monochromes in a variety of colors, including apple green, coral, blue and yellow were estimated in the range of $2,000 to $12,000. A blue glazed bowl (lot #340) estimated at $6,000-$8,000, sold for $28,125. A yellow glazed incised saucer (lot #348) valued in the range of $3,000-$5,000, brought $17,500. In a London auction of Qing Imperial Monochromes, a peachbloom washer estimated between $257,900 and $386,850, sold for $435,851.
The prices of antique Chinese porcelains have soared in recent years since the Chinese government strictly forbids the export of items produced before 1911. The authenticity of monochrome porcelains is problematic and many modern specimens including forgeries and reproductions are offered for sale today. Novices are cautioned not to start collecting porcelains within the field of monochromes and instead are advised to start with blue and white or polychrome varieties. These more traditional types have color tones, decoration and patterns that can provide valuable clues regarding authenticity.
At least a dozen catalogues containing Chinese porcelains are featured in Gilding the Gilded Age III. Several were owned by William Randolph Hearst and are now in the archive at Long Island University. Archival sales records indicate that Hearst purchased traditional types of porcelain and was not drawn to monochromes. For example, Hearst acquired two Qing dynasty blue and white ginger jars from the Carvalho sale, one for $80 and one for $67.50. The former was sold in 1938 to a private collector for Hearst’s purchase price; the latter was sold for $17.50 to Gimbel Bros. in 1941. Hearst also purchased an important Ming five-colored plaque from the Hugo E. Bauer sale for $150. He then sold it in 1940 with two other items to Le Passe Gallery for $51. Similar items are estimated at premium prices on today’s Chinese auction market.
 Li Jixian, Qing Dynasty Ceramics, in Chinese Ceramics from the Paleolithic Period through the Qing Dynasty, eds. Virginia L. Bower and He Li, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 459.
 Suzanne G. Valenstein, A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975), 198.
 Jonathan Hay, Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010), 115.
 Robert L. Hobson, Chinese Pottery and Porcelain: An Account of the Potter’s Art in China from Primitive Times to the Present Day. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1976), 194.
 Ada Cone, “Decorative Quality in Oriental Porcelain,” The Decorator and Furnisher 17:1 (Oct 1890): 26
 Stephen W. Bushell, Chinese Art, Vol.1. (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1921), 45.
 Hobson, Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, 189.
 Maude Haywood, “Oriental Porcelain: China,” The Decorator and Furnisher, 16:3 (June 1890): 79
 Hobson, Chinese Pottery and Porcelain: An Accoun (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1976), 118.
 Jixian, Qing Dynasty Ceramics, 465.
 Valenstein, A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics, 199.
 Hobson, Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, 176.
 Jonathan Hay, Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010), 121. See also Yamanaka, #148 with image, “Imperial Wedding Gift.”
 Valenstein, A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics, 199.
 Cecile and Michel Beurdeley, A Connoisseur’s Guide to Chinese Ceramics. (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 248.
 Hobson, Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, 188.
 Beurdeley, A Connoisseur’s Guide, 244.
 Valenstein, A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics, 204.
 Hobson, Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, 176.
 Sotheby’s Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, September 17th—18th 2013. Accessed October 10, 2013, http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2013/fine-chinese-ceramics-works-of-art-n09006.html#&i=0
 Sotheby’s Qing Imperial Monochromes from the J.M. Hu Collection, October 9, 2013. Accessed October 10, 2013, http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2012/so-jm-hu-hk0434.html#&i=0
 Collecting Antique Chinese Porcelain, accessed October 10, 2013, http://www.chinese-antique-porcelain.com/china-antiques-blog.html
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