Essay by Lee Jung-in
White porcelain is the representative ceramic form of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), visually embodying the austerity and refinement of Neo-Confucianism. Established in the late fifteenth century, the official kilns—known as “bunwon”—produced fine white porcelain exclusively for the royal court and central government, laying the foundation for the culture of Joseon white porcelain. Combining the stark beauty of plain white coloration with the elegance of diverse designs, Joseon white porcelain is associated with the highest quality of ceramics. As compared to the earlier celadon of the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392) or contemporaneous buncheong ware, Joseon white porcelain tends to be decorated with relatively simple techniques and motifs. Rather than incision or stamping, most designs were painted onto the vessel with a brush and pigment. The three preferred pigments for painting Joseon white porcelain were cobalt-blue underglaze, iron-brown underglaze, and copper-red underglaze, each of which enjoyed different periods of popularity. In particular, designs and patterns painted in cobalt-blue underglaze reflect the influence of Chinese ceramics.
While the term for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain was “靑花,” various historical records have shown that Joseon blue-and-white porcelain was called “靑畫.” The second character (“畫”) means “to paint,” so that the Joseon term may be translated as “painted in blue.” The cobalt pigment used to paint the designs on Joseon blue-and-white porcelain was very expensive and could only be imported from China. Thus, most of the designs made with this precious material were painted by the official court artists of the Royal Bureau of Painting. Overall, relatively few Joseon blue-and-white porcelain vessels were produced, and they were reserved for the royal court and the ruling literati class.
Early examples of Joseon blue-and-white porcelain were usually decorated with motifs borrowed from China, such as the cloud and dragon design, a floral scroll design, a fish design, the “Heavenly Horse” design, and a design combining a pine tree, plum tree, and bamboo. Over time, Joseon began to develop its own unique motifs, including poems, grapes, plants with insects, various floral designs, and (as seen here) the “plum, bamboo, and bird design.”
Being ideally suited for vessels with wide surfaces (such as this large jar), the plum, bamboo, and bird design became one of the most popular designs on Joseon blue-and-white porcelain vessels. This blue-and-white porcelain jar with plum, bamboo, and bird design (National Treasure 170) is considered to be the representative example.
Plum, bamboo, and bird design: Classic aesthetics of Joseon
This blue-and-white porcelain jar shows the most common shape of jars from the Joseon period, with a short straight neck, a wide shoulder, and a lid. It was coated with a layer of translucent glaze with a bluish hue, which now contains some hairline cracks on the side and around the base. The short neck of the jar is decorated with a spiraled pattern of curved lines resembling clouds, which was applied three times. Below this, the primary design is a painterly rendering of two birds facing one another in a plum tree. The cobalt underglaze used to paint the image is so dark that it looks almost black in certain areas. For example, the bird on the left is especially dark, with the pigment applied so thickly that the details of the bird cannot be discerned. The main design is framed by horizontal lines around the mouth and base.
The bird on the right is perched on a bent branch that splits into two smaller branches. The bird on the left sits on a longer branch, and looks back over its shoulder to the right. While most of the branches of the plum tree were painted with simple brushstrokes of color, others were first outlined and then filled with pigment. This technique helps to emphasize the blooming plum blossoms on the smaller branches, as well as the buds that are scattered on various branches. The proportions between the tree and the other elements are not realistic, as the plum blossoms and birds are rendered much larger than they would actually be. Nonetheless, this stylistic choice highlights the adept skills of the painter in capturing the key details of these natural elements.
This scene includes a curious detail that has rarely been seen in other examples of the plum, bamboo, and bird design: a collection of eight wildflowers (five on the left and three on the right) sprouting from the ground beneath the tree. The flowers on the left, which seem to be gently swaying in the breeze, are elegantly rendered with diagonal and vertical lines that guide the viewer’s eye up to the birds in the tree.
This example of the wildflower design is considered to be a precursor to later wildflower designs that were painted with either iron-brown or cobalt-blue underglaze.
On the other side of the jar, next to the plum tree, is a stalk of bamboo with many branches. The thick stalk naturally tapers, becoming thinner as it slants up from the lower left to the upper right. Filling a wide area of the surface, the design yields a pleasant tension. Although the upper half of the main stalk looks a bit feeble, the dense leaves on the branches convey a vibrant atmosphere.
Branches of plum tree and bamboo
When ceramic vessels have a lid, the same motif is often featured on both the vessel and the lid, for a harmonious design. The lid of this jar is painted with a design of plum and bamboo branches, and it also has a knob shaped like a lotus bud, with lotus petals drawn on it. The lid is larger than the mouth of the jar, but there is an attached ring on the underside of the lid (about 2 cm tall) that fits snugly into the mouth.
Painted with cobalt-blue pigment, the design on the top of the lid reflects the subtle curves of the lid’s form. The plum branches extend at exaggerated angles to encircle the knob, thus emitting a distinct sense of movement for such a small design. Serving as the background, the bamboo stalks are more subtly rendered, with the short but taut leaves spreading as if in response to the dynamic plum tree branches. The amicable relationship between the plum and bamboo yields a pleasant energy that is further enhanced by the blank areas of the surface.
This blue-and-white porcelain jar with plum, bamboo, and bird design radiates with the unique spirit and philosophy of the time, demonstrating how Joseon aesthetics had diverged from Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. With its elegant design of a plum tree, birds, wildflowers, and bamboo reflecting the grandeur and nobility of the royal court and the literati of the Joseon Dynasty, this jar truly embodies the rich culture of Joseon white porcelain.
Read the essay and learn more on The National Museum of Korea’s website.