The Glass that Gallé Adored
— Glass from the Qing Imperial Collection
Prologue: The Origins of Chinese Glass
When did glass originate in China? Despite progress in archaeological excavations and analytic methods, a definite conclusion has yet to be reached. It is, however, thought that full-scale glass production began in the late Spring and Autumn period or the Warring States period (500 BCE to 300 BCE). Many early glass artifacts reached China from the West. Nonetheless, analysis of the hundred glass bi (discs with a hole in the center) excavated from Hunan Province, the glass embedded in the handle of the Sword of Goujian, which was discovered in Hubei Province, and glass bead ornaments excavated from the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng in Suizhou has led to the conclusion that the mixture of ingredients used to produce those glass artifacts was independently developed in China. Thus, it is hypothesized, after metalworking and other technologies were in place in China, glassmaking also began there.
Most of the glass items produced in that period were implements associated with rituals, such as bi, sword handles, and seals, as well as decorative pieces such as round or cylindrical beads and rings. More than a thousand such artifacts have been excavated from a vast area of China, including Gansu, Liaoning, Hebei, Shanxi, Shandong, Henan, Hunan, Sichuan, Anhui, Fujian, and Guangdong provinces. These works in glass, as substitutes for precious stones and jade, would cast out evil spirits, protect high-ranking persons, or serve as grave goods. Most are small, but each was created with meticulous, precise workmanship. Some also have gold or silver inlays enhancing their remarkably noble beauty.
The Prologue introduces the origins of Chinese glass through the magnificent work by craftsmen of the ancient world.
I. The Emergence of Imperial Glass
—During the Reigns of the Kangxi and Yongzheng Emperors
Glass production in China, while influenced by the glass of many other cultures, developed independently, achieving dramatic advances during the Qing dynasty. In 1696, the fourth Qing emperor, Kangxi (reigned 1661–1722), established the Imperial Palace Glassworks in the Yangxindian, within the confines of the Forbidden City. The founding of that glass workshop, which was charged with producing glass mainly for the imperial family, marked the dawn of over two centuries of Qing glass’s glorious development.
The glassworks was one of the workshops supervised by the Imperial Household Department. Technical direction was provided by European missionaries. The craftsmen are thought to have been gathered from Boshan in Shandong, long a center of glass production, and Guangzhou, which had prospered as a port city engaged in international trade. The role of Boshan was particularly important; throughout the Qing period, it was a major source of the raw materials for glass.
During the reign of Kangxi’s successor, the Yongzheng emperor, a glassworks was also set up in the Yuanming Yuan (the Old Summer Palace), a complex of gardens and palaces outside Beijing and the number of furnances increased to six. As far as we can judge from extant examples, most of the output was blown glass distinguished by simple but powerful forms. We know that during that period, the colorful gemstones that had adorned the clothing of government officials was gradually being replaced by vividly colored glass.
Unfortunately, few examples of glass thought to be from the Kangxi and Yongzheng eras survive. Crizzling, a glass disease caused by an imbalance of ingredients, is one factor that has caused much Kangxi and Yongzheng glass to deteriorate and spontaneously collapse. Section 1 of this exhibition thus includes only three works probably from the Yongzheng era. These are examples speaking of the budding of Imperial glass.
II. The Glory of the Qing Court
—The Qianlong Emperor’s Achievements
During the reign of the Kangxi emperor, the political foundations were laid for the Qing dynasty. With the basis for stable rule established, scholarship and the arts flourished during the reign of the sixth Qing emperor, Qianlong. During the six decades of his reign, Qianlong played an enormous role in encouraging the development of painting and other art forms. His contributions also brought Qing glassmaking to its glorious zenith.
In 1740, two French missionaries, Gabriel Léonard de Brossard and Pierre d’Incarville, arrived in China. Qianlong assigned them to the glassworks. Taking their advice, Qianlong had a more efficient furnace built. The emperor’s passion for actively incorporating European knowledge stimulated the Chinese craftsmen at the glassworks, and Qing glass entered its golden age. Judging from extant examples, we can conclude that, in addition to transparent materials, opaque glass in multiple colors and overlaid glass, with two or even three layers, appeared, with a variety of designs and scenes carved in relief. Marbled glass resembling gemstones or marble, aventurine glass with grains of gold in it, the use of enamels to decorate glass, and the transmission of a variety of forms tell us of the glory of Qianlong period glass.
The consummate appeal of imperial glass lies in its dignified and extraordinarily magnificent carving and its distinctive use of color. The traditional Chinese design sense, which valued materials such as jade, quartz, and ivory and was averse to fragility and evanescence, and the artisans’ skills created a distinctive beauty without parallel in other glassmaking traditions.
The progress achieved in imperial glass was not, moreover, confined to the elevated world of the court. Craftsmen returning home after working in the imperial glassworks brought their new skills with them and applied them to glassware for a wider audience. The evolution of imperial glass was thus connected to advances in glassmaking as a whole in China. In this section, delight in the result: the quintessence of Qing glass in all its glory.
III. Emile Gallé and Qing Dynasty Imperial Glass
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, works of art from China and Japan had, as we know, a significant impact on painting and craft arts in Europe. Emile Gallé (1846–1904), an artist active in France’s Art Nouveau period, was one of those swayed by those exotic influences.
Gallé, who worked in glass, ceramics, and cabinetmaking in the ancient city of Nancy, in eastern France, eagerly incorporated the essence of the arts of other lands, including Egypt, the Islamic world, China, and Japan, in establishing his own style. The connection between Gallé and Chinese craft objects is clearly visible in his work during and after the 1889 Paris Exposition. Indeed, his description of the work he showed in the exposition includes the statement that his jade glass imitates Chinese jade. His Black Glass series was also probably inspired by Chinese works.
Earlier, in April, 1885, Gallé had spent two weeks in Berlin, where he carefully studied the more than 300 pieces of Qing glass in the Kunstgewerbemuseum. We also know that even earlier, in 1871, he had visited the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum). It was famed for its East Asian collection, which he carefully studied.
Gallé also collected Qing snuff bottles, and a watercolor of snuff bottles in Gallé’s hand survives. In 2015, a group of twenty-two craft items from China and Japan formerly in Gallé’s collection, including three snuff bottles, were put up on auction. While they represent only a small part of his collection of Oriental art, they are valuable resources, when compared with his own work, for understanding how strongly his work expresses Gallé’s respect for the feel of his materials and how carefully he observed the examples that inspired him as he created.
This section offers a glimpse of the influences Gallé received from Qing glass by presenting, alongside work by Gallé himself, Chinese glass vessels and snuff bottles that Gallé is likely to have studied (or that are of the same type). In viewing them, join Gallé in enjoying the beauty of the Qing glass that so fascinated him.
Epilogue: The Snuff Bottles—a Microcosm of the Qing Dynasty Glass
The Qing dynasty glass snuff bottle is a container for snuff, fine-ground tobacco. The lid of the bottle often had a small spoon attached so that the user could scoop out the snuff. People fond of taking snuff would mix the ground tobacco with their preferred flavorings or herbs and inhale it into the nasal cavity, enjoying its aroma along with the hit of nicotine. Tobacco is native to the Americas and was transmitted to Europe in the mid sixteenth century and to China in the late seventeenth century. After taking snuff became fashionable at the Qing court, it spread to Chinese society at large.
The containers used for snuff in China, snuff bottles, are functional pieces that were also treasured items and status symbols. Made of many types of materials, including porcelain, glass, jade, and gemstones, they were crafted with great extravagance. The Imperial Palace Glassworks produced snuff bottles both exclusively for the emperor’s use and for the emperor to bestow upon aristocrats and foreign ambassadors. In these snuff bottles, elegant works that fit in the palm of the hand, are condensed the essence of Qing craft techniques and elegance. The small snuff bottles that survive today brilliantly communicate the glory of Qing dynasty court glass. They are a microcosm of Qing glass, in all its splendor and elegance.