At once aesthetically beautiful and thought provoking, Chinese porcelain encompasses an unparalleled history of development and desire. Up until the 16th century, the Chinese were the only ones who could perfect the creation, craft, and design of hard-paste porcelain. More importantly, the Chinese were the only ones who could enjoy the leisure and beauty evoked by their porcelain pieces, as no other country in the world had the ability or wherewithal to create hard-paste porcelain.
Originating in China during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), porcelain fast became an integral part of Chinese decorative arts. During the 6th through the 9th centuries, porcelain saw unprecedented growth in Chinese culture as new developments of technique, growing importance of tea. In China, porcelain wares were highly regarded as works of art; Porcelain pieces were see as objects of rarity and luxury.
It wasn’t until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) almost 2000 years later, that Chinese porcelain hit the Western world, when the Chinese export business reached its heights. In the 16th century, Portugal established trade routes to China and the Far East. With steady commercial trade, Chinese craftsman began producing ceramic objects specifically for export to Western European countries. Ideas began being exchanged between the two countries and growing curiosity in Western Europe quickly developed a fervor for this fashionable new material.
In the 17th century, different patterns were designed in order to satisfy the high demand for Chinese ceramics in Western Europe. Perhaps the most popular and desirable of the patterns, Chinese Rose Medallion, perfectly showcases the uniqueness and recognizability of Chinese export porcelain. Called “polychrome enameled,” this type of porcelain consists of a ceramic body decorated in only blue pigment and then painted under the glaze in a variety of colors and depictions.
The pattern, extremely recognizable, consists of a central medallion that often features a bird of a peony. Outside of the medallion, four or more panels typically encircle the body of the ceramic, covering the piece in a flat narrative sequence. Figures, trees, birds, butterflies encircle the porcelain ware, leaving the viewer to discern the intricate details within each panel. The dominant colors of the rose medallion pattern often consists of vibrant pinks, greens, reds, blues, and sometimes softer pastels.
Upon its arrival in Western Europe, the Rose Medallion pattern was met with immediate satisfaction and desirability. Taking a likeness to its vibrancy and foreign depictions, Europeans sought to obtain this pattern on their utilitarian forms, such as candlesticks, large decorative bowls for their foyers, and tazze, among others. Nonetheless, the pursuit of these items, executed in extraordinary detail, required specific and talented expertise on the part of the Chinese artisans and craftsman.
In order to recognize and date Rose Medallion pieces, there are a few simple steps to follow. Other Chinese export porcelain patterns, such as Rose Canton can often be mistaken for Rose Medallion. An simple trick can be used to spot true Rose Medallion pattern: if people are depicted in the narrative panels, but there’s an absence of birds, then it is true Rose Medallion. If the Rose Medallion piece doesn’t have any marks or characters to identify itself, then it is most likely a piece made before 1890.
Some of the highest quality Rose Medallion pieces utilized gold to highlight the finer details, and even some of the more intricate depictions on the surface. As a very recognizable pattern even to this day, the Chinese Rose Medallion pattern speaks to the growing interest in Chinese porcelain, and the talent of the artisans in the Far East.