A magnificent Chinese covered jar in Famille Noir/Famille verte enamels decorated with flowers, reign of Kangxi (1662-1722)
The "Famille noire" is a neologism invented in the 19th century by the French art historian Albert Jacquemart, to whom we also owe the terms "Famille verte" and "Famille rose" which have since become in international use. In reality, the Chinese did not make distinct categories within Famille verte porcelain, or "yingcai" ("striking colors") as they called it, and we therefore owe Albert Jacquemart the following distinctions within the Famille verte: "Famille Jaune", when these have a yellow background, or "Famille noire" when the background is mirror black (a shiny black with bluish or rainbow reflections as on the surface of petroleum).
It is therefore mainly European collectors, and in particular French collectors, who put this last variety in a pinnacle, produced, this fact is now true at a really confidential scale. The fame of the "Famille noire" porcelains perhaps also came because at the end of the 19th century, Famille Noire porcelain topped so admirably Second Empire furniture, keen on black and gold contrast. In fact, the old Famille verte porcelains on a black background were very rare and their success aroused a strong Western demand among Chinese ceramic artisans who resumed producing black Famille / Famille verte under the reign of Guangxu (1875-1908). However, it is quite easy not to confuse them with their prototypes of the 18th century, because the multiple firing required by the combination of glazed enamels were in fact perfectly mastered only during the reign of Kangxi, the reason no doubt why The Famille verte / Famille noire were not produced on a large scale for export, profitability requires.
There are indeed some examples of Famille verte / Famille noire on few articles intended for the Chinese market, for example such a very beautiful dish decorated with dragons of this type, with an apocryphal mark of the Ming dynasty, can be seen at the Guimet Museum and is illustrated in "La Céramique Chinoise Ancienne", Alexandre Hougron, Les Éditions de l'Amateur, 2015, Paris, page 164. The use of an apocryphal mark of appreciation (the 15th century Chenghua mark in that case) is on this 18th century dish is a sign that this type of article was intended for the Mandarin elite and not for imperial use, and immediately it is easy to understand why by making the link with the art of lacquerware, so much appreciated by the scholars.
Porcelains coated with lacquer and embellished with mother-of-pearl are known under the reign of Kangxi; all or almost all were also made for the pleasure of the litterati because in China the black lacquers, a little despised by the Qing Manchu emperors, were associated with the furniture of the officials of the Ming dynasty. So there is no doubt that when the Chinese potters combined the enamels of the Famille verte together with the black enamel, they were making reference to the art of black lacquerwares, the world of the Ming scholars, and that the fashion of the trompe-l'oeil, very important under the Qing Manchu dynasty, was behind this small innovation.
This is also why we find the "Famille Noire" mainly represented by Chinese porcelain from the 18th and 19th centuries intended for export. And this is where we find again the principle of commercial efficiency: the last black enamelling step, as pretty as it may be, was tricky because it required a third or fourth firing which had to be mastered enough not to not smear other glazes on the glaze. And in fact, on some Famille Noire vases, one can observe such "burrs" of green, yellow or blue enamels on the black.
It is also what makes it possible to twist the neck of another legend which circulated at the time when the studies on European Chinese art were still fumbling to understand the difficult Chinese ceramic art: that of the 19th century re-enameling in black of Famille verte items executed in the 18th century. In addition to the fact that this process was very hazardous, as we have just explained, it ran the risk of destroying an old and authentic work, an 18th century Famille verte, which had already become overpriced. It is in fact easy to identify the specific mirror black glaze which was applied during the Kangxi period on the Famille verte / Famille noire: this enamel which is in general, unless proved otherwise, perfectly contemporary with its neighbors shows in the light grazing an iridescent mauve or bluish film which comes from the vapors given off by the other enamels during the last firing over medium heat (around 650 ° Celsius).
This deep and shiny petroleum black called "mirror black", quite the opposite therefore of a funereal color, is what makes the beauty of the objects in Famille verte / Famille noire and it is indeed found on this vase.
The pattern of flowers and birds is also elegantly divided by partitions which allow time to be broken down by seasons through the flowers which correspond to them, a motif taken up on the cover. This journey through time and by various flowers is done by a simple quarter-turn of the object which also gives it a different appearance each time.
This vase is therefore, as we understand it, extremely rare and of a truly museum quality. There is no doubt that it was part of a garnish like those that have been preserved in the collections of Augustus the Strong, with two jars and three beaker vases (or three jars and two beaker vases). Of this set, undoubtedly made for a European aristocratic family in the 18th century, only this sumptuous object in the form of artistic and technical prowess remains.
Our jar can be compared to a large vase sold at Sotheby's New York, October 11/12 2005, lot 18.