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Black & White: Chinese Ceramics from the 10th–14th Centuries Opens December 18 at the Freer Gallery of Art
Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor, 202.633.0523
Public only: 202.633.1000

November 15, 2004

From the 10th through the 14th centuries, Chinese potters significantly expanded the ceramic repertoire by perfecting a clay body of pristine whiteness and developing a luscious black glaze, leading to the production of innovative, visually striking vessels, dishes, boxes and tomb ceramics. This exhibition presents examples of the most acclaimed "black and white" ceramics of the period. The range of glaze colors on view include "blacks" that shade to brown, and silvery tones and "whites" that range from ivory to pale blue. Objects from diverse kilns demonstrate the inaccuracy of a longstanding assumption that the major kilns of this period produced a single "signature" ware. They show instead how dynamic exchanges involving imitation and rivalry between nearby and distant kilns in north and south China, as well across the lines of different crafts, affected production. The exhibition remains open indefinitely.

Works on view illustrate the responses of 10th- to 14th-century potters to the market demand for new styles of ceramics. Heightened social competition led potters to make affordable ceramics that resembled luxury vessels of more expensive materials such as jade, lacquer, and silver. A novel method of tea preparation resulting in a frothy white-foamed beverage stimulated potters at the Jian kilns in south China to create a new form of dark-glazed bowl that showed the tea to advantage. A stunning Jian ware bowl on view bears a sumptuous glaze patterned by "oil spots"—unplanned effects of the iron-laden glaze. The success of Jian ware prompted fierce competition from other kilns, including those in Jizhou, where potters experimented with dark-on-dark decoration and also produced a mottled tortoiseshell effect.

Many factors, including local raw materials (such as the different types of clay found in north and south China), fuels, and firing procedures affected the color of the finished wares on view in the exhibition. Potters at the northern kilns making Ding ware had access to deposits of white clay containing kaolin, the basic ingredient of porcelain clay, which they used to make prized white ceramic wares that became an affordable and practical alternative to silver vessels. Ding vessels were embellished with carved or molded designs and covered with an ivory tinted glaze. Ding ware potters also produced some black wares, evoking dark lacquer vessels.

Rival potters at kilns making Cizhou ware developed everyday ceramics featuring bold designs and robust forms that came to be imitated elsewhere. Cizhou ware offered a range of choices in decoration based on either white or black slip (a thin solution of clay applied beneath the clear glaze), striking combinations of both or a dark iron-rich pigment applied over a dark glaze. Some of the most striking decoration used a technique known as "sgraffito," in which the surface layer of glaze or slip was cut away to create designs by exposing a ground of contrasting color. A rare ceramic Cizhou pillow on view bears the exact date of its production (1063) and a different pattern on each face.

Cizhou potters sometimes kneaded together black and white clays, creating the marble effect seen in the 13th- to 14th-century incense burner on view. A black Cizhou bowl with a white-slipped rim simulating a band of thin silver foil shows how Cizhou potters imitated silver objects.

Potters in the southern town of Jingdezhen competed with the elite northern Ding wares by mixing locally available materials to create a new type of compound clay that proved ideal for making white wares. When glazed, Jingdezhen wares took on a glassy, bluish-white color that was compared to "icy jade." Jingdezhen porcelains became so popular both domestically and abroad that by the 14th century the south had overtaken the north as the major source of white wares for the world.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue, S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily, except Wednesdays and public holidays and are subject to docent availability. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 357-1729, or visit the special, exhibition-related section of the galleries’ Web site at

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