Four wine bottles with covers

New Acquisitions: 2017

Sometime between 1670 and 1700, these four wine bottles with matching lids and exquisite enamel decoration journeyed from Asia to Europe. They made their way from the Sakaida family workshop in the Nangawara district of Arita, the Japanese “porcelain capital” in northwestern Kyushu, to the warehouses of Dutch VOC merchants based on the island of Deshima in Nagasaki, and then to Amsterdam. Eventually, they became possessions of the Van Brienen family, wealthy traders who acquired the hereditary title of baron from Emperor Napoleon and owned the bottles for generations. From 1781 until 1933, the family occupied a magnificent house on the Herengracht canal, where the bottles must have been a component of the decor. In 1852, the bottles moved as the possessions of a Van Brienen daughter to Bourlémont Castle in Vosges, France.

That the group of four has remained together for some three and a half centuries, complete with their lids, is little short of miraculous. Typically, only single bottles of this shape and design have been passed down, though occasional pairs or groups of three survive (for example, in the Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Germany). No other published examples of bottles in any number are still associated with their matching lids. This rare quartet becomes a centerpiece in the Freer Gallery collection of Japanese porcelain, setting the measure for the highpoint of the refined Kakiemon style.

The story of the Kakiemon style in Arita porcelain may be said to begin in the early 1640s, when late Ming Chinese techniques of decorating with overglaze enamels were introduced to Arita via Chinese merchants based in Nagasaki. Ohashi Koji, an authority on the style, suggests that merchants assisted with the immigration of Chinese enameling specialists, who sought stable work amidst economic disruptions at the end of the Ming dynasty. Until that point, Arita workshops had produced only cobalt-decorated blue-and-white wares. Thereafter, enamel decoration featured prominently in top-quality production in various styles.

The Freer collection of Japanese porcelain has been able to tell this story, including the early enamel exercises [F1957.26]; the format formerly known as Kutani style [F1967.15]; the Nabeshima style developed exclusively for annual tribute gifts to the Tokugawa government [F1959.10]; and the Imari style, which became prominent after 1700 [F1957.1].

Missing until now, however, has been a first-rate representation of Kakiemon ware. As defined by Ohashi Koji, in the most precise sense, Kakiemon ware from the Sakaida workshop is characterized by mold-formed rather than wheel-thrown vessel forms. Potters shaped crisp, angular profiles by pressing thin slabs of clay into multipart molds. A second defining trait is the exclusive use of overglaze enamels for decoration, without any underglaze cobalt components. The prominent trait of the Kakiemon enamel palette is a glowing red-orange hue, tinted by finely ground iron oxide. The studio name Kakiemon, adopted by successive heads of the Sakaida workshop, refers to this “persimmon” (kaki) shade.

The four bottles meet these exacting standards as “classic” Kakiemon ware. Like four flowers on a single plant, all display unifying traits while each varies subtly. The delicate molded bottle forms reacted to the high-temperature firing required to fuse porcelain clay by twisting slightly in the heat. Each enamel rendering of the paired plum and chrysanthemum motifs, framed within a flat wall, is slightly different. Several decorators must have transferred the same pattern to the glazed, four-sided forms. These variations reveal the handwork underlying all phases of Kakiemon ware production—the warm human engagement that distinguishes this ware from modern industrial porcelain.

Provenance: Willem Joseph Baron van Brienen (1760–1839), mayor of Amsterdam, Huis van Brienen, Amsterdam; Arnold Willem Baron van Brienen de Groote Lindt (1783–1854), Huis van Brienen, Amsterdam; Angélique Adelaïde Louise Caroline van Brienen de Groote Lindt (1833–1921), Huis van Brienen, Amsterdam, then following her marriage to Simon Gerard Louis d’Alsace de Hénin-Liétard (1832–1891) in 1852, moved to Bourlémont Castle; Thierry Arnaud Laurent Comte d’Alsace Prince de Hénin (1853–1934), Bourlémont Castle and Huis van Brienen, Amsterdam (donated to the Hendryck de Keyser Foundation in 1933); thence by descent in the same family, at Bourlémont Castle.

Japan, Edo period, ca. 1670–1700
Arita ware, Kakiemon type
Porcelain with colored enamels over clear glaze
H: approx. 22.7 cm each
Purchase—Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund and the Elizabeth Ridout Endowment for Japanese and Chinese Art
Freer Gallery of Art F2017.6.1–5