As trade with East Asia expanded in the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company imported great quantities of Chinese porcelain to the Netherlands. Soon after the first examples arrived in Holland in 1604, Dutch factories rushed to produce less costly imitations in earthenware. Based in the town of Delft, dozens of factories perfected an opaque white glaze with brilliant underglaze blue decoration that is nearly indistinguishable from Chinese porcelain at first glance. Some shapes are closely copied from Chinese models, while others, such as tulip vases, are uniquely Dutch. The Chinese also produced porcelain specifically for the Dutch market, such as a large plate (1756) with a representation of a Dutch sailing vessel, and at least one Dutch designer was hired by the East India Company to produce designs that were executed in China and imported to the Netherlands, including a porcelain plate (about 1740) decorated with a lady standing before waterfowl while an attendant shades her with a parasol.
Delft potters also copied Japanese porcelain that filled the vacuum when wars in China disrupted the production of porcelain at the end of the 17th century. Combining underglaze blue and overglaze iron-red and gold, Japanese-inspired decoration remained popular throughout the 18th century. Further technical advances in the early 18th century allowed for the addition of other colors, such as green, yellow, and red.
The MFA began acquiring Delft pottery in the 1890s, and the Museum’s collection includes many pieces by leading makers, such as the “Greek A” and “Moor’s Head” factories that flourished at the end of the 17th century, the period of Holland’s greatest technical and artistic achievement. Two landmark acquisitions—a gift from Rita and Frits Markus in 1982, and the G. Ephis Collection, purchased in 2012—include unusual forms, such as a star-shaped condiment set, “pyramids” for cut flowers, and a tea caddy with a rare “black” glaze that imitates Asian lacquer. Although Delft has become synonymous with Dutch ceramics, other towns such as Arnhem, Haarlem, Gouda, The Hague, Utrecht, and Weesp produced earthenware and porcelain over the past several centuries.
The G. Ephis Collection
The G. Ephis Collection contains 74 examples of late 17th- and early 18th-century Delft earthenware, as well as selected Chinese, Japanese, Persian, and European counterparts made around 1600–1750. Its focus is objects that demonstrate the impact of Asian porcelain on Europe in the 17th century. The collection celebrates the triumph of Delft during Holland’s “Golden Age” (about 1660–1720), as potters inspired by Chinese porcelain refined materials and techniques that allowed them to produce extremely convincing copies, as well as original Dutch versions of Chinese and Japanese porcelain and lacquer wares.
The G. Ephis Collection includes a number of rare forms, such as a condiment set (about 1680) by Samuel van Eenhoorn, a wall plaque (about 1690) attributed to Frederik van Frijtom, a pair of double-gourd vases (about 1686–92) by Rochus van Hoppesteijn, tulip vases in the form of triumphal arches (about 1690–1705), and the largest known “black Delft” tea canister (about 1695–1720). Many of these have been widely exhibited and reproduced in museum publications.
Another notable aspect of the collection is a group of five plates showing the transmission of Chinese porcelain designs across Japan, Persia, and Europe. The group is anchored by a Chinese-made plate from the Wanli era (about 1590), as well as Japanese and Dutch interpretations of similar design, known as “Kraak” ware, after the Portuguese carracks, or ships, that transported cargo from China to Europe. The story of global exchange continues with a Persian plate (second quarter of the 17th century) and a rare Portuguese faience plate (about 1640–50) in the style of Kraak ware. Two Japanese oil and vinegar cruet vases (about 1700–50) based on European models show similar crosscurrents of Asian and European inspiration.