Chinese Cloisonné

G.W.V. Smith Art Museum » Second Floor

George Walter Vincent Smith’s collection of 150 examples of cloisonné is one of the largest outside of China. Smith collected Chinese decorative art for 40 years before the museum opened in 1896. Trade between China and the West began in the 18th century, stimulating both American and European collectors to purchase Chinese art. Although Mr. Smith never visited China, he had a life-long appreciation for its decorative arts and culture. By buying from dealers in New York and Europe, he became a leading 19th-century collector. To produce cloisonné, the artist soldered bronze wires onto a heavy cast bronze body, forming an intricate trellis-work of compartments. Enamel pastes were packed into the sections, called cloisons, and fired in a kiln. Each colored enamel required a separate firing. Repeated heating often caused the piece to melt or crack and the enamels to bubble. Perfect pieces of cloisonné required great delicacy and patience. The Smith collection includes examples from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), considered to be the “golden age” of cloisonné, as well as fine pieces from the Ching dynasty (1644-1912). Household objects such as vases, candlesticks, dishes and jars, as well as religious items such as incense burners, altar sets and Buddhist figures are all displayed in the Museum. Of particular interest is a champion vase from the late 18th century. Designed as a double vessel and based on the shape of a quiver, this extraordinary piece was probably a trophy. Between the two vessels, a falcon with spread wings subdues a monster, and a dragon on the back of the vessel also unifies the two cylinders. A blue and red elephant bearing a yellow vase is another treasure. This lighthearted piece probably was created for personal use and incorporates auspicious symbolism. The words for vase and peace in Chinese have the same pronunciation (ping), while the word for elephant (hsiang) also connotes hope. Thus, the sculpture represents a wish for peace and hope. Today, the cloisonné gallery remains much the same as in Mr. Smith’s original arrangement. The ginger tone of the gallery, a popular color in the early 20th century, is similar to the color Smith chose, and the objects are displayed in their original cases.