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Decker Library Exhibitions

Asian Ceramics in the Walters Collection

January 12 - 30, 2016
Curated by Kathy Cowan

Decker Library is fortunate to have a complete set (10 volumes) of the publication Oriental Ceramic Art (W.T. Walters, Stephen W. Bushell, and William M. Laffan. 1897. New York: D. Appleton and Co.). We also have 2 copies of a 1980 reprint of the book.

I first encountered the images of East Asian ceramics in this book as a MICA student working in the Walters Art Museum Store in the Summer of 1979. When the book Oriental Ceramic Art was created in the 1890s, there were many color plates of the ceramic objects left over, and these were available for purchase from the Walters Store. (This is still the case! All but 2 of the images are currently offered for sale at $49.95 each.)

The images were fascinating: intensely detailed renderings of elaborate, gorgeous objects, floating on a featureless background. When I noticed that many of the images included reflections of the landscape outside the room in which the paintings were made, it made them even more enjoyable. I later learned that the images were chromolithographs made by the Prang Company, from watercolors made by artists including James Callowhill who worked in a room of the Walters Mansion at 5 West Mount Vernon Place, so the reflections on the shiny surfaces of the objects were mini-cityscapes of 1889 Baltimore.

The Walters Art Museum had an exhibit devoted to the publication in 2011: Realistic Perfection: The Making of Oriental Ceramic Art, providing this summary on their website:

In 1889, William Walters commissioned Louis Prang & Co., the foremost practitioners of the art of chromolithography, to reproduce choice examples of Chinese porcelain from his extensive collection. Chromolithography, now called color lithography, is a printmaking technique that uses a separate stone for each layer of color needed to produce the finished print. Prang's artisans engaged in the painstaking work of recording every detail of Walters' vases to produce richly colored lithographs that faithfully captured the surface and color of each ceramic piece. The production of the book took nearly sixteen years and brought together some of the nation's finest artists and craftspeople.

The resulting publication, Oriental Ceramic Art by Dr. Stephen W. Bushell, was both a catalog of the collection and a work of art unto itself. When the book was released it immediately set a new standard for both the understanding of East Asian ceramics and for the art collection catalogue. To this day it remains a monument of great importance in the history of chromolithography and documents the foundation of one of America's greatest collections of Asian porcelain. ...

-- Kathy Cowan, Senior Reference Librarian, Decker Library

See more images on the Decker Library Tumblr. Thanks to Allison Fischbach, Kelly Swickard, Meredith Moore, and Art Soontornsaratool for assisting with this exhibition.

Image Information:
Transmutation Splash Vase (P'ing) of the Ch'ien-lung period (1736-95). Plate XVI from Oriental Ceramic Art.