— ABOUT THE COLLECTION —
The Jie Rui Tang Collection was formed over a 35 year period. Unlike most Chinese porcelain collections, it consists exclusively of one period of production, namely the Kangxi period. The decision to concentrate on just that particular period came from a number of factors. The first was the belief that the Kangxi period represented a golden age in porcelain production, but not just for its technical skill. While the sixty years of the Kangxi reign saw the most technical advancements of porcelain production of any other period, it was more that it represented the last great expression of the three thousand year old Han Chinese culture in porcelain.
Of course Kangxi was a Manchu and not Han Chinese, but he and his court adopted the Han Chinese aesthetic and the interest in Han Chinese culture. Hence, the porcelain production was a continuous evolution from earlier Ming styles and themes, but with even more widespread expression of Han culture, history and literature than in earlier Ming examples.
The Kangxi period was also the last to rely on natural metalic oxide glazes for its overglaze enamels with the so-called foreign colors appearing only very late in the reign. These oxide glazes gave the porcelain painting a depth and jewel like quality never equalled again. In addition, the underglaze cobalt blue was of a very vibrant sapphire tone, yet to be equalled. Further, the quality of the painting on porcelain was very free and painterly. The brushwork was very fluid and the painting style very loose and dynamic. During later periods the painting became more stylized and much stiffer.
Of course another major reason to concentrate on the Kangxi period was the availability of material. It was a very prolific period, with a tremendous level of production for domestic and export wares. The Imperial Court was also a very large buyer of porcelain and took a detailed interest in its production. Although the imperial kilns were rebuilt during the Kangxi period after they were burned in the Rebellion of the Three Feudatories, it is unclear how much of what is Kangxi mark and period actually comes from those kilns and how much comes from the private kilns on special order. However, what one can say is that some of the finest pieces of porcelain during that period came from private kilns and do not have Kangxi marks. This changed during later periods where the best pieces were more likely to have the imperial mark and the private kilns were not likely utilized much for imperial orders.
During the latter part of the Wanli reign of the Ming dynasty, the court was struggling financially due to wars and famines and patronage of the imperial kilns was minimal. The result was that many private kilns were expanded or created and hired the best talent. During the so-called Transitional Period, which followed, there were very few imperial orders and little export due to the ongoing wars, and the main buyers from the private kilns were the literati. They were a very discerning audience who appreciated high quality. They also enjoyed literati themes and stories and so catering to that demand the private kilns produced sophisticated pieces with historical or literati themes and with a very high standard of painting. The Kangxi period saw the continuation of those high standards, but this time with significant imperial patronage, a growing prosperous merchant class who sought the to emulate the literati taste, and the re-opening of export trade. The result was a great deal of technical innovation and a tremendous increase in production. With that came a great deal of creativity in the shapes, painting styles and themes on the porcelain. It is interesting to note that many of these themes reflecting literati taste declined in the late Kangxi period as merchant taste, Imperial taste and export taste dominated the production.