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Luxury and Luminosity:
Visual Culture and the Ming Court at the Freer Gallery of Art
July 3, 2004–June 26, 2005

Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.633.0523
Barbara Kram: 202.633.0520
Public only: 202.633.1000

In the Western world, the word "Ming" is virtually synonymous with blue-and-white porcelain, but in fact the Ming ceramic palette was not confined to those colors. Moreover, many of the Ming dynasty emperors who ruled in China from 1368 to 1644, patronized a wide variety of arts and crafts that exploited a vivid and luxurious spectrum of materials and colors.

From July 3 through June 26, 2005, the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art will present an exhibition featuring both a large selection of the Ming dynasty blue-and-white porcelain coveted by 20th century Western collectors, and a broad variety of less familiar court objects, including paintings, textiles, lacquer and cloisonné from approximately the first half of the Ming dynasty.

The Chinese court's predilection for red lacquered objects as well as white, blue-and-white and highly colored porcelains is reflected in many of the 48 works on view, which range from the translucent, pure white pieces favored by the Yongle emperor (1403–1424) to the brightly colored yellow-and-blue and yellow-and-green dishes that were popular in the Zhengde period (1506–1521.) Cloisonné objects and enamel-decorated porcelain pieces intended to simulate them, a gold jar inlaid with semi-precious gems, as well as hanging scrolls and album leaves from the period are also on view. A few porcelain objects reminiscent of Islamic metalwork demonstrate the importance of trade to the Near East in the 15th century and point to mutual exchange and foreign influence on some Ming arts.

The Ming was a native, Chinese-ruled dynasty that had conquered a foreign, Mongol-led dynasty in power from 1279 until 1368. Although two of the strongest early Ming rulers maintained foreign interaction, several emperors rejected the styles of the immediate past in favor of reviving the glorious artistic heritage of the Song dynasty (960–1279)—the most recent Chinese-ruled era. The variety of sources that Ming court arts drew upon led to a rich artistic culture.

Spanning a period of almost three centuries, the Ming court was a large, complex and far-spread hierarchical organization. Each Ming emperor had his own aesthetic preferences and commissioned stunning porcelains with new color schemes, great variety in shapes of vessels, and multiple approaches to painted decoration, including ornamental, patterned motifs and more naturalistic scenes that resembled scroll paintings that are also on view.

Most luxury goods were carefully controlled in their manufacture and regulated in their use as tableware and clothing conveyed explicit messages of power and status. Most Ming imperial porcelains were manufactured in an imperial ceramic factory in the town of Jingdezhen in southeastern China using a highly purified, compound clay composed of kaolin and porcelain—or china—stone. The resulting high-fired, white-bodied ceramic ware had a hard, dense texture that was impermeable to liquid, translucent when thin, and resonant when struck; the perfect ground for colorful and inventive decoration.

Among the works on view are:

  • A virtually translucent "sweet white glazed" stem cup and a bowl manufactured using a technique new to the Yongle period (1403 – 1424) and continued for only a short time thereafter. The Emperor Yongle favored the color white, which symbolizes mourning and filial piety. Both objects feature decorative elements that are virtually invisible except in intense, direct light.
  • A colorful cloisonné mandala base decorated with auspicious Buddhist symbols that speak to the close cultural relationship between China and Tibet in the 15th century.
  • Several blue-and-white dishes, a white plate with red overglaze painting prized during the Xuande period (1426–1335), and a Chenghua period dish with a rare turquoise glaze, all of which feature dragon decoration. Use of turquoise and cobalt blue on Chinese porcelains probably derived from its earlier popularity on imported Islamic ceramics. Dragons were auspicious creatures considered to bring rain and dragons reaching for a flaming pearl of a special ruyi-shaped cloud were a symbol of good fortune. Dragons' superior qualities were likened to those of an ideal ruler and from ancient times they were associated with the emperor, but in the Ming a special five-clawed dragon (as opposed to a three or four-clawed dragon) became the symbol of the emperor.
  • A tankard with Persian style design motifs and shaped to emulate identically shaped bronze and jade Iranian models.
  • A Zhengde period (1506–1521) yellow-and-green enameled slops jar decorated with a pattern of dragons chasing flaming pearls that was incised into the porcelain body before the colors were added. This design harkens back to Yongle experiments with yellow and green decoration.
  • A blue and yellow enameled dish—also popular during the Zhenge period (as well as before and after)—decorated with a central gardenia spray surrounded by a lotus, a persimmon, grape, and a pomegranate spray—all multi-seeded plants representing fertility.
  • A rare, jewel-like Chenghua period (1465–1487) stem cup decorated with a Chinese rose using the "doucai" (interlocking, colors) technique.
  • A Yongle period (1403 – 1424) red carved lacquer box featuring two gentlemen seated in a garden; a scene symbolic of longevity.

The Freer and Sackler galleries together form the national museum of Asian art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day. Admission is free. This summer from June 24–July 29, the galleries remain open on Thursday evenings until 8 p.m. for "Art Night on the Mall." 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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