This rare cobalt-decorated porcelain teabowl was made to order in China for the Japanese market. Although the vessel is made of Chinese materials, its aesthetic reflects the distinctive taste in tea utensils cultivated by Japanese practitioners in the first few decades of the seventeenth century. The low body, which the potter pressed into an oval after throwing it on the wheel, echoes the asymmetrical form of a contemporaneous Black Oribe ware teabowl from the Mino kilns. The design resembles landscapes in ink paintings, both Chinese models and Japanese interpretations, that were favored for the tearoom display alcove.
This bowl adds a new dimension to the Freer Gallery’s exceptionally rich representation of the diversity of vessels made for chanoyu around 1600. These ceramics were produced at kilns throughout Japan, but they were also made to Japanese order in Korea, Southeast Asia, and China. Until now, the Freer collection has not represented the Chinese role.
Instead, the Freer holds a particularly large number of Korean ceramics used by Japanese teamen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and collected by Charles Lang Freer in the 1890s. The oldest of these Korean bowls, from the sixteenth century, represent Japanese teamen’s earliest phase of placing orders to kilns outside Japan for distinctive tea utensils enhanced by their exotic source. A later group, dating from 1639 to 1718, was made at the ceramic workshop that operated intermittently at the Japanese trading post near Busan. As surviving documents show, this kiln filled orders to the exact specifications of Japanese teamen.
Chinese tea wares made to Japanese order are far rarer. Few are found outside Japan. Even within Japan, they are confined to collections once associated with prominent warrior or industrialist families. Examples are in the Tokugawa Art Museum (housing the collection of the Tokugawa ruling house’s Owari branch), the Hatakeyama Memorial Museum of Fine Art (based on the collection of Matsudaira Fumai, a warrior famed for his tea treatises), and the Seikado Bunko Art Museum (home to the Iwasaki collection).
The well-made hardwood storage box associated with this bowl indicates a similar provenance. The box lid bears the Japanese term for the group of wares to which the teabowl belongs: “Gosu,” referring to the blue-gray, impure cobalt used for the decoration. The cobalt quality and imperfect porcelain body flecked with iron are typical of pieces made at the Zhangzhou kilns in Fujian Province.
This teabowl can also tell another story: It is a forerunner to a tile that a Japanese patron commissioned two centuries later from a kiln in the Chinese porcelain center of Jingdezhen. The Japanese fascination with China did not wane.