The Kangxi emperor (reigned 1662–1722), in addition to being one of the longest-serving rulers of imperial Chinese history, had the foresight to restructure China’s foreign relations policies. One change that he implemented was to loosen the imperial edicts restricting commercial trade with Western nations. Although still tightly controlling the mercantile system, he spurred on the economy by permitting European traders to obtain Chinese goods more easily. The introduction of these goods to European markets resulted in a craze for chinoiserie that was particularly felt by the Chinese porcelain industry. In addition to filling sizable orders for traditional wares, numerous workshops soon found themselves brokering personal orders from scores of wealthy European patrons.
This vase and cover is a representative example of a number of trends found in the eighteenth-century export porcelain trade. The most dominant feature of this work is the large cartouche inset with a European armorial crest—identified as that of Carneiro de Sousa, an eighteenth-century Portuguese nobleman—which signifies the piece as an individualized, specially commissioned work. The cartouche is surrounded on all sides by a traditional Chinese scrollwork design of blossoming flowers and vines that spreads over the remainder of the vessel. Horizontal bands of different widths divide the work into registers at the base, shoulder, and neck, and the lid is surmounted by a qilin (chimera) figure, connoting prosperity. The quality of the materials employed in the painted decoration and the degree of finish are notably inferior to those found in imperial workshops. While the potting is solid, the painting techniques displayed here lack the adept, crisp execution of work from the imperial porcelain workshops in Jingdezhen. Also, the cobalt used in the decoration of the floral and vine scroll decoration is low in quality and in several places has run, resulting in an almost smeared appearance. These defects are commonly found throughout those Chinese porcelains, whether they were commissioned or standardized orders, that were produced exclusively for the export market during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911).