The beauty of antique vases is as varied as the materials, shapes and styles in which they can be formed. For millennia, vases have been created across cultures and continents, and their uses go far beyond home decor and displaying beautiful bouquets. Although vases typically share similar visual traits such as a rounded shape and a bulbous body, they can come in a plethora of variations that might include a narrowed neck, a footed base or handles. Some more nonconventional examples may even take on imaginative anthropomorphic or zoomorphic forms. Read on for a primer on types of antique vases, their diverse materials and some unexpected uses.
Types of Antique Vases
In examining the history of the vase, we can find some of the most sophisticated examples ever created in antiquity. Vases were especially important to the arts and culture of the ancient Greeks, and they created a plethora of vase shapes and styles to serve a variety of purposes. Some of the most common forms are the amphora (a tall and slender shape with two handles), the krater (a large, handled vase that comes in a variety of iterations) and the kylix (a footed, shallow vessel with a wide mouth). There are dozens more, however, and each shape is meant for a specific task, such as mixing water and wine or holding perfumes. Ancient Greek vases are also particularly refined from an artistic perspective, with many displaying finely painted scenes that tell complex stories from history, myth and literature. In fact, Greek vase painting is one of the most studied disciplines in all of art history.
In subsequent centuries, we see many of these ancient shapes adopted for the modern age and made their own. Neoclassical motifs remained popular, and Greek forms endured in vase manufacturing. Other shapes emerged as well, including the bud vase (which became fashionable in the early 18th century), the trumpet vase (popular in the Japanese Edo period), or even the rustic mason jar and water pitcher.
Antique Vase Materials
StoneStone vases have been around since antiquity, with the Egyptians turning vessels from alabaster and porphyry, and ancient Chinese artisans carving vases from luxurious jade. Craftsmen in more recent centuries have taken inspiration from these ancient forms in their stone vases, including in Vienna which emerged as one of the most important European centers for decorative arts beginning in the mid-19th century. Some of the most fascinating forms from this period recall totem poles associated with ancient Chinese culture, featuring horn-like forms and an intricately carved face with shimmering diamond eyes.
PotteryPottery, also known as ceramics, has endured as an art form since the age of the pharaohs and the ancient Greeks and Romans, and it is one of the most commonly seen types of vases across history. Josiah Wedgwood famously invented a new type of ceramics called jasperware which was crafted with an unglazed matte "biscuit" finish. Jasperware techniques were introduced to the public in 1775 and they were groundbreaking in the field of ceramic art and style. Some even describe this type of stoneware as the most important development in ceramics since the Chinese discovered porcelain.
A lover of neoclassical motifs, Wedgwood applied his new art form to ancient forms. The original Portland Vase, which resides in the British Museum of Art, is the most famous cameo glass vessel from Roman antiquity. In the late 18th century, Josiah Wedgwood received the vase from the Duke of Portland and began to create his jasper versions, which are regarded as one of the greatest ceramic accomplishments in the history of the decorative arts.
Porcelain was first made by Chinese artisans in the Tang dynasty (618–907), and up until the 16th century, the Chinese were the only ones who could perfect the creation, craft and design of hard-paste porcelain. Vases were a popular application of this complex art form, and a fine Chinese porcelain vase is still considered one of the most fashionable decorative objects in any home--a perfect accent for a living room mantel or kitchen coffee table.
The production of antique glass dates back almost 4,000 years to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and some of the earlier hollow glass forms coincide with these cultures. The ancient Romans also created impressive glass vessels that informed many later glass artists, most notably the famed Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose favrile glass vases are especially coveted among collectors.
Enamel is a material that is formed through a process in which finely ground, powdered glass is fused to a metal surface using high heat. This hard and glossy material is radiant and eye-catching, making it a particularly lovely medium for vases. Limoges enameler Camille Fauré dazzled visitors at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which famously gave name to the emerging Art Deco movement, with his distinctly modern enamel vases.
Learn more about enameling techniques and their role in antiques.
Unique UsesVases are of course best known as vessels meant to display beautiful cut flowers, but historically, they have provided a plethora of other useful and interesting functions. To reference the ancient Greeks again, each vase shape had a designated use. For instance, the Greek hydria, as the name would suggest, was used to hold and transport water or other liquids, and its three strategically-placed handles allowed for easy pouring. Kraters, because of their large size, were well-suited to the mixing of liquids.
Potpourri vases first appeared in 18th-century France, and they were meant to hold fragrant materials as a kind of precursor to the air freshener or scented candle. These types of vases include pierced lids which allow the scent of the perfume or potpourri within to disperse throughout the room.
As mentioned earlier, the Chinese invented and perfect the art of porcelain, and it wasn’t until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), almost 2000 years after its development, that Chinese porcelain wares appeared in 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 craftsmen 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 one example of their status as precious objects, Augustus the Strong of Saxony negotiated a trade with Frederick the Great of Prussia in 1717 that specified he would receive 150 Chinese porcelain vases in exchange for 600 cavalrymen. Afterward, these vases gained the nickname “soldier vases” and a reputation as powerful diplomatic gifts.
Considering the age and delicate materials of many antique vases, it is important to work closely with an expert sales consultant to be sure a vase can safely hold water for cut flowers. However, many collectors purchase antique vases purely for their history and elegance, and they can surely enrich one’s home decor with their decorative beauty. To learn more about identifying antique vases and other histories of rare antiques, visit M.S. Rau’s website.