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Current time:0:00Total duration:6:37

Dutch Republic

Video transcript

(lively piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, looking at three Delft objects that are completely different from each other and help to give us a sense of why Delft ceramics were so important. - [Courtney] In the City of Delft, starting from about 1620 onwards, we see this explosion of factories that are all making tin-glazed earthenware, a type of ceramic. At the height in the 1660s and 1670s, there were over 30 factories that were constantly innovating to outdo each other and to outdo the Chinese porcelain that they were trying to imitate. - [Steven] When Chinese porcelain was first introduced to Europe by the Portuguese, it was seen as a kind of miracle. The walls could be extremely thin. It was hard. And it had a translucency that was unlike anything that had been seen in Europe. - [Courtney] Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, you see many factories trying to compete with imported Chinese, and to a lesser extent, Japanese porcelain. You see de'Medici in Florence try and fail. And it's not until the early 18th century, when a German factory, Meissen, manages to crack the code of porcelain. Delft embraces the fact they couldn't make porcelain and specializes in earthenware, which becomes this domestic product that they excel at. And this constant competition between different factories, they're always one-upping each other, and trying to find a new way to innovate new glazes, new techniques and new forms. - [Steven] Let's look, first, at this multi-unit vase, and this is blue and white. So it traces its origins to China as a visual type, but this is a purely European design. - [Courtney] The Delft potters were so good at taking inspiration from the Chinese porcelain, particularly in terms of blue and white, and then finding unique and innovative ways to make new forms, to work with their domestic market. This is one of a pair of two vases in the form of a Triumphal Arch. And you can see that it has seven individual holes that would have held single tulip flowers. And on one side, you can see that all of the stonework is intact. And then on the other side, it's in disrepair, the masonry is broken. It's tumbling down. - [Steven] Well, this was a moment where there was an interest in the ruin and to see it here replicated for a tabletop is spectacular. The next object on this table is a little tea caddy, that is a vessel that's meant to keep your tea fresh. - [Courtney] This is a really rare surviving example of something called black Delft. It's a type of ceramic, that's made in Delft, but the entire body has been painted with a black enameled glaze. It's fired and then it's painted again with the colors of the yellow and the green and fired again. And this was so technically difficult that only two of the factories in Delft even attempted to make this. And what makes it really special is that it's trying to imitate another luxury good, Japanese lacquer. The Dutch East India Company had thought that Japanese lacquer would be just as popular as Chinese ceramics, but it actually was too expensive. The cost was prohibitive. But a piece like this is trying to imitate that Japanese lacquer with less expensive materials. - [Steven] And we see the influence of the East, not only in that imitation lacquer, but also in its shape and in its purpose. - [Courtney] This is a tea caddy or canister. It's a vessel that's made to hold the loose leaf tea that would have been used to make cups and pots of tea in wealthy households. - [Steven] It's so interesting to see one type of material mimic another, but this is especially successful because the smooth surface of the black lacquer-like glaze is so akin to what lacquer actually looks like when it is finished. It's hard, it's smooth and it's shiny. - [Steven] The period of time when the Delft ceramicists were making this material coincided with an interest in trompe l'oeil or this idea of different materials, pretending to be other materials. - [Steven] So, the first object was blue and white. The tea caddy is this luscious black and yellow and green. And then we have this little shoe, which is multicolored. - [Courtney] This is another great example of how the Delft potters had to innovate. Blue and white was very popular, but there were also porcelain pieces coming from Japan, which were made in Imari, and they had lots of different colors. And so they had to find a way to create multiple colors on their own earthenware ceramics at home. And it involved a lot of technical experimentation with different glazes. The different metallic oxides need to be identified to create the different colors. And after a number of years of experimentation, a few factories determined that what they actually had to do was fire it at a lower temperature. And we have a term for that, that comes from the French, petit feu, little fire. So after all of this experimentation and finding the different oxides, they were able to produce pieces that combined both the white background, the blue that we've come to know, and then you can also see yellow and green and red. And even in a few instances, there's some gold, but really a technical feat. - [Steven] What's so interesting to me is that you have this beautiful European style shoe, but at the same time, you have imagery that's clearly coming from China. - [Courtney] I think you can see so many influences in an object like this. The form is European. The decoration is, to some extent, Chinese. And you can see that they're trying to create something new from many different influences. And porcelain is an object that moves easily around the world. Ceramics are durable. They're easy to put on a ship and take with you somewhere else. So you see this exchange of ideas within the ceramic making world. And I think that's part of why they are always competing. There's always new things coming from abroad, something that you have to respond to, react to. It's a really fascinating market that begets competition and innovation. - [Steven] Now, the first two objects that we looked at have a clear purpose. One is to hold tulips. Another is to hold tea. The shoe a little bit different. It could have held something, but it seems as if it is just an object that is meant to be admired. - [Courtney] Decorative art objects sometimes don't tell us everything and we yearn to know more. We're not actually sure if it had a purpose. There are some ideas that it might have related to betrothal gifts for women. Then other theory suggests that it may just have been for decoration on the table or on a sideboard. All we can know when we look at it is that it's beautiful and that anyone who had it in their home would likely have admired it and prized it. (lively piano music)