Blue and white porcelain: a 400 year old tradition

In the seventeenth century, the whole of Europe was seized by an obsession with kraak.

This obsession caused wars between nations and swayed government actions and policies. So, what exactly is kraak?

It is a type of early Chinese Export blue-and-white porcelain made for the European market. kraakware is always blue-and-white and its distinctive feature is the way the design is laid out. The dishes feature a central medallion painted with a scene with divided panels on the lip. The small panels on the lip are filled in with typical Chinese motifs and symbols of good fortune usually of fruit and foliage like peaches, lotus, or plum blossoms. This design 'template' enabled Chinese manufacturers to produce kraak by the tens of thousands.

Chinese, for European market; Dish; Ceramics-Porcelain-Export

Distinctive design feature of kraak dishes: central medallion painting of a scene with smaller divided panels on the lip filled with Chinese auspicious motifs. This design allowed for efficiency in production because an assembly line of artisans could paint the specific areas they were assigned. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

You'll also see them featured in numerous Old Masters' still life paintings:


Isaac van Duynen. Oil on canvas. 1660s. Grapes, peaches and plums in a 'wan-li kraak' porcelain dish and in a wicker basket, a pewter jug and a silver plate, all on a partially draped table in an interior. Image copyright: public domain.

Chinese Export Porcelain caused a sensation when they arrived in Europe en masse in the seventeenth century thanks to the capture of a Portuguese merchant ship named Santa Catarina by the Dutch. The ship was carrying thousands of pieces of Chinese porcelain in its cargo which the Dutch sold at public auction. And the public went mad. The total value of sales from that first auction alone was three million Dutch guilders which opened the eyes of Dutch merchants to the profitability of Chinese porcelain. 

In fact, the story of the Santa Catarina, is one that changed the course of global trade and international law.

The incident which took place on February 25th, 1603 off the coast of Singapore, sparked Hugo Grotius, a young lawyer hired by the Dutch East India Company to justify its action - considered to be an act of piracy at the time - to pen an expansive treatise provisionally entitled De Indis (On the Indies). This piece of writing is considered today to be the cornerstone of the moral law of nations.

Piracy or not, the cargo of Santa Catarina, sparked an absolute mania for Chinese porcelain and the legacy of this obsession remains today.