What is "Famille Rose" Porcelain?


People interested in collecting or buying Chinese porcelain might be curious about the prevalence of a French term used to describe certain types of wares. What exactly are they, and how do they relate to the other terms in use?

Here are some insights into the terminology.

Pair of Famille Rose Bowls

Pair of Famille Rose Bowls, China, six-character Yongzheng mark inside a double ring on base. 

The term famille rose (meaning of the “pink family”) refers to porcelain glazed with enamels in a predominantly pink, white, yellow, and green color palette. The term originated with a French scholar in 1862 and has been used by scholars of all nationalities. While it is important to note that other, more specific, terms originate from Chinese that describe these same wares, famille rose is a blanket term commonly used by auction houses, antique dealers, and in older scholarly publications. These terms have overlapping and been interchangeable for some time, so it can help to unpack them a little.

Famille rose wares began to emerge in quantity by the early 18th century. At the end of the 17th century, firing techniques developed allowing for pink, white, and opaque yellow enamels to be added to the existing color palette of green, black, translucent yellow, iron red, and underglaze blue. In China, these wares were described early on as yangcai, meaning foreign colors, due to the European influence that initially introduced them via Jesuits visiting the imperial court.

Other Chinese terms include falangcai, which refers to wares in this new palette that originated in the imperial workshops, and fencai, meaning powder colors, which were falangcai enamels of slightly different compositions including iron powder and lead arsenate, combined to make opaque white enamel. The exact technical definitions of these terms and origin dates are the subject of ongoing scholarship, and the two can be challenging to differentiate.

Falangcai Red-ground Bowl, China

Falangcai Red-ground Bowl, China, Kangxi style, four-character “Kangxi yuzhi” mark in underglaze blue base.

Famille Rose Plaque, China

Famille Rose Plaque, China, 19th/20th century, depicting flowers with a pair of birds perched on a floral branch and a pair of butterflies in the sky, in fencai enamels, bordered with a patterned band of floral and foliate scrolls and bats.

Designs on porcelain could now have a more delicate, “filled in” three-dimensional effect, with more subtle gradations in color achievable. For example, flowers became more exquisite, expressive, and naturalistically depicted, and human figures more realistically depicted in various settings.

The Qianlong period, considered by many the height of famille rose ceramic production, produced wares displaying some of the best and most innovative techniques. Pieces made during this reign are in high demand and often imitated.

Massive Famille Rose Enameled Vase, China

Massive Famille Rose Enameled Vase, China, late 19th century, baluster-shape, with openwork chilongs in pink, decorated with illustrated stories in two panels against a turquoise blue ground with auspicious emblems in raised design, six-character Qianlong mark on base. 

Meanwhile, towards the end of the 18th century, famille rose porcelains became extremely popular for export to the West. The most prevalent motifs were named “rose medallion,” characterized by dense swathes of butterflies and birds arranged around cartouches depicting figures in idealized court scenes, and “rose mandarin,” of similar design incorporating more figures in reserves in the place of the butterflies and birds.

Rose Medallion Garden Seat, China

Rose Medallion Garden Seat, China, 19th/20th century, ground of floral meander with panels depicting flowers and birds alternating with scenes of aristocratic life.

Large Rose Mandarin Punch Bowl, China

Large Rose Mandarin Punch Bowl, China, early 19th century, the interior and exterior decorated in polychrome enamels and gilt with alternating panels of figures in court scenes and vignettes of flower vases and scholarly objects, a band of flowers and butterflies at the rim.

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