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Octagonal Jar
Japan, Saga Prefecture,
Edo period, 18th century
Porcelain painted with underglaze cobalt blue and overglaze enamels, with traces of gold
H. 17 5/8 in. W. 12 3/8 in.

Porcelain in Japan
The first Japanese porcelains were produced during the 17th century. Several factors contributed to this development. One was the contributions of the technically advanced potters brought to Japan from Korea during the late-16th century Japanese invasion of Korea. Another factor was the discovery in Japan of the type of clay needed to produce porcelains, a discovery traditionally attributed to a Korean potter named Ri Sampei. A third factor was civil disarray in China, which led its foreign ceramics customers, particularly Europeans, to turn to Japan in search of the highly prized wares. During the 17th century the city of Arita, located on the southern island of Kyushu, became the largest and most important center for the production of porcelain in the world.

By the 5th to 6th century C.E,. Japan had turned to China and Korea for such powerful cultural ideas as a writing system, the Buddhist religion, and artistic motifs and symbols. The interpretation of these borrowings was, and has remained, original and has consistently produced a recognizably Japanese body of work.

How to look at this work
Two women, one following the other, are walking amongst a group of buildings. We can see another building above and to the rear of the second woman. Large flowers surround the two. The buildings have sloping wooden roofs. The first woman, who has an elaborate hairstyle, wears a kimono with large flowers and a black sash (obi). The second woman, who appears smaller, has a simpler hair style and a darker kimono.

The neck, shoulder, and base of the vase are decorated with a combination of fantastic creatures, flowers, clouds, and cartouches filled with the symbols of Buddhism--including parasol, wheel, fish, and endless knot.

The predominant colors are red, pink, and blue. The background is white. The vase's shape is octagonal.

This vase is painted with Chinese-inspired motifs, like the clouds on the neck, Buddhist symbols, like the lions, and Chinese style architecture. On the other hand, the beautifully attired woman followed by an attendant wears a Japanese hairstyle and kimono, which indicate that she is a high-ranking courtesan. These details reflect fashions and customs prevalent in Japan during the late 17th century.

Japanese potters produced Chinese style pieces for both the Japanese and the export markets. However, the large size of this vase suggests that it was made for export to Europe where it would have functioned as decoration.

How this object was made
Porcelain is the product of a combination of two special clays--kaolin and petuntse--which when fired at temperatures above 1300 C becomes nonporous, vitrified (glasslike), and usually translucent. Unlike earthenware and stoneware, which may be found in a range of body colors, porcelain is generally white. The jar was produced on a pottery wheel, then the eight flat sides were produced by hand faceting.

The blue decoration was produced by painting on the unbaked object using cobalt oxide, covering the dish with a colorless glaze, and then firing the piece. The rest of the scene was painted in overglaze enamels then the jar was refired at a lower temperature.

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