Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Mesopotamian Pottery

The historical styles of Western pottery include those of the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean as well as those of the medieval Muslim world and medieval and modern Europe.

Ancient Middle East

Iznik Ware Thrives in Turkey

The earliest Middle Eastern pottery yet discovered comes from Çatal Hüyük, in Anatolia, and dates from 6500 bc. In addition to terra-cotta cult statues and painted clay statuettes, the ware from this site (near modern Çumra, Turkey) includes pieces painted in red ocher on a body covered with cream slip. Other pottery was monochromatic—buff, light gray, beige, or brick red. It was coil built and paddled, then burnished; some pots were incised with simple horizontal lines. The ware was fired either in a bread oven or in a closed kiln with a separate firing chamber. Other Neolithic pottery from the Middle East, primarily from Syria, had impressed designs or was combed with the edge of a cardium shell. See Iranian Art and Architecture; Mesopotamian Art and Architecture.

Persia and Mesopotamia

The earliest painted ceramics of northern Mesopotamia date from just before the 5th millennium bc. At Samarra’, stylized human and animal figures were painted with colors ranging from red to brown and black on a buff background. Shortly thereafter, polychrome pottery of higher quality was made at Tell Halaf, where potters had learned more thorough control of their kilns.

At about the same time, Persian potters painted geometric designs on pots covered with light-colored slip. By the 4th millennium the potter's wheel was in use. People from the north migrated to Persia and introduced red and gray monochromatic pottery. At the height of the Ubaid period (4th millennium bc) a pottery industry around Susa produced many drinking vessels and bowls from refined clay. Coated with a greenish-yellow slip, they were decorated in a free style with painted geometric shapes, plants, birds, other animals, and stick-figure people.

Glazed pottery began to be produced about 1500 bc. The finest Mesopotamian ceramic work was not in domestic pottery, but rather in glazed brickwork used for architectural ornamentation. The tradition began in the 3rd millennium at Erech (Uruk), where columns and niches were covered with a geometric mosaic of colored nail-like ceramic cones. In Babylonia during the Kassite rule (mid-2nd millennium bc), unglazed terra-cotta was used to face temples and palaces. During the 8th century bc, at Khorsabad, the capital of the Assyrian monarch Sargon II, a temple entrance was decorated with molded glazed brickwork depicting animals in procession. This tradition reached its climax in Babylon in the 6th century bc. There the famous processional way was lined with glazed bricks on which more than 700 bulls, dragons, and lions were carved and molded, then glazed in a palette ranging from white to yellow to brownish-black against a blue or greenish-blue ground. The facade of the royal throne room was decorated with lions on walls and with columns crowned and surrounded by stylized palmettos and lotus buds.

Egyptian Pottery Pottery was one of the earliest art forms undertaken by the ancient Egyptians. This piece from the Predynastic period (5000 bc-3000 bc) is decorated with ostriches, boats, and geometrical designs.Art Resource, NY

In the 5th millennium bc Egyptian potters made graceful, thin, dark, highly polished ware with subtle cord decoration. The painted ware of the 4th millennium, with geometric and animal figures on red, brown, and buff bodies, was not of the same high standard. Dynastic Egypt was famous for its faience (to be distinguished from the later European ceramics of that name). First made about 2000 bc, it is characterized by a dark green or blue glaze over a body high in powdered quartz, somewhat closer to glass than to true ceramics. Egyptian artisans made faience beads and jewelry, elegant cups, scarabs, and ushabti (small servant figures buried with the dead).

Mediterranean, Greece, and Rome

Pottery from the islands of the Mediterranean and Aegean during the late Bronze Age (1500-1050 bc) and early Iron Age (1050-750 bc), especially from Crete (Kríti) and Cyprus, showed great imagination on the part of the artists, who painted bichrome ware with geometric, abstract, and figurative designs. At times, pottery shapes were fanciful and seemingly nonfunctional; at other times, in vessels used for ointments and cosmetics, the shapes were quite delicate. See Aegean Civilization; Greek Art and Architecture; Roman Art and Architecture.

Northampton Vase The Northampton Vase is an example of Greek vase painting from the late 600s and early 500s bc. The shape of this vase is known as an amphora, one of six standard shapes used in pottery at that time. The mythological creatures and delicate, floral designs reflect the Greek interest in Oriental imagery, and these forms are augmented with white and brown highlights.Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York

The fashioning and painting of ceramics was a major art in classical Greece. Native clay was shaped easily on the wheel, and each distinct form had a name and a specific function in Greek society and ceremonial: The amphora was a tall, two-handled storage vessel for wine, corn, oil, or honey; the hydria, a three-handled water jug; the lecythus, an oil flask with a long, narrow neck, for funeral offerings; the cylix, a double-handled drinking cup on a foot; the oenochoe, a wine jug with a pinched lip; the crater, a large bowl for mixing wine and water. Undecorated black pottery was used throughout Greek and Hellenistic times, the forms being related either to those of decorated pottery or to those of metalwork. Both styles influenced Roman ceramics.

Even in the Bronze Age, the Greeks took advantage of oxidizing and reducing kilns to produce a shiny black slip on a cream, brownish, or orange-buff body, the shade depending on the type of clay. At first, decorative designs were abstract. By the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1500 bc), however, stylized forms from nature appeared. By the Late Bronze Age, plants, sea creatures, and fanciful animals were painted on pots of well-conceived shape by the Mycenaeans, who were initially influenced by Cretan potters. Athenian geometric style replaced the Mycenaean about 1000 bc and declined by the 6th century bc. Large craters in the Geometric style, with bands of ornament, warriors, and processional figures laid out in horizontal registers, were found at the Dipylon cemetery of Athens; they date from about 750 bc.

Attic potters introduced black-figure ware in the early 6th century. Painted black forms adorned the polished red clay ground, with detail rendered by incising through the black. White and reddish-purple were added for skin and garments. Depictions of processions and chariots continued; animals and hybrid beasts were also shown (particularly in the Orientalizing period, roughly 700 to 500 bc), at times surrounded by geometric or vegetal motifs. Such decoration was always well integrated with the vessel shapes, and the iconography of Greek mythology is clear. Beginning in the 6th century, the decoration emphasized the human figure far more than animals. Favorite themes included people and gods at work, battle, and banquet; musicians; weddings and other ceremonies; and women at play or dressing. In some cases, events or heroes were labeled. Mythological and literary scenes became more frequent. Potters' and painters' names and styles have been identified, even when they did not sign their works.

Red-figure pottery was invented about 530 bc, becoming especially popular between 510 and 430. The background was painted black, and the figures were left in reserve on the red-brown clay surface; details on the figures were painted in black, which allowed the artist greater freedom in drawing. The paint could also be diluted for modulating the color. Secondary colors of red and white were used less; gold sometimes was added for details of metal and jewelry. Anatomy was rendered more realistically, and after 480, so were nuances of gesture and expression. Although Athens and Corinth were centers for red-figure pottery, the style also spread to the Greek islands. By the 4th century bc, however, it declined in quality. Another Greek style featured outline drawing on a white ground, with added colors imitating monumental painting; these vessels, however, were impractical for domestic use.


The Romans admired highly polished red-gloss earthenware—possibly in reaction against Greek and Hellenistic black pottery. The red-gloss technique developed in the eastern Mediterranean in the late Hellenistic period (323-31 bc). This ware was made by dipping the pot in a suspension of fine particles of high-silica clay (which gave a higher gloss when polished) and firing it in an oxidizing kiln. Decoration was in raised designs: The pots were formed in clay molds that had been impressed along the edges with roulettes in repeat motifs, stamped with other designs and figures, and given further details that were hand-carved in the mold—hence the term terra sigillata (“stamped earth”) for this ware. (The term is often also applied by extension to the clay suspension in which the pots were dipped.) Many designs and shapes were inspired by metalwork and cut glass. Arretium (modern Arezzo) was the center for red-gloss ware with relief decoration, and the best of this pottery, from the 1st centuries bc and ad , is thus called Arretine ware. Several areas of the Roman Empire made Arretine ware, but as manufacture moved farther from the capital, the quality of the red-gloss ware declined. The best was from southern France from the 1st century ad.

The BLAck-gloss ware that the Greeks had made also spread through the Roman Empire. In England it resembled Celtic metalwork. At times the wet clay was pinched out to create a dotted effect; other pots were decorated with white slip or pigment. Roman potters also made lead glazes, a procedure that enabled them to add metal oxides for color. Lead-glazed earthenware became the major pottery of medieval Europe.

Islamic Pottery

The first Muslim potters of the Umayyad dynasty (ad 661-750) inherited the traditions of the Middle East: the blue- and green-glazed quartz fritwares known in Egypt since Roman times; the alkaline-glazed pottery of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Iran, known since Achaemenid times (7th-4th century bc); and the Roman lead-glazed ware, continued by Byzantine potters. Three successive waves of Chinese influence inspired change in Islamic pottery: from the 9th century to 11th century, Tang stoneware; from the 12th century to 14th century, Song white ware; and from the 15th century to 19th century, Ming blue-and-white ware. See Islamic Art and Architecture.

Medieval Arabic Styles

In the 9th century, caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty encouraged local artisans to imitate imported Tang pottery with local clay and glazes. The Arab potters soon developed their own style—first in unglazed pottery with molded, stamped, and applied-relief decoration, then in underglaze sgraffito designs and in opaque white tin-glazed bowls with painted flowers and inscriptions, and finally in luster painting. Lusterware was earthenware with an opaque white tin glaze, fired once, then painted with metallic pigments and refired in a reduction kiln. The designs reflected metallic hues of red, bronze, lime, and yellow.

When potters emigrated from Iraq to the western Muslim world in the 10th century, the luster technique moved with them. As with tin glazes, lusterware ultimately influenced Europe by way of the Arab residence in Spain. It was also popular in Fatimid Egypt (969-1171) and Iran.

Iran and Turkey
Turkish Mug This mug was made in 16th-century Turkey during the Ottoman Empire. It is earthenware, with a white underglaze and blue, purple, and red overglazes. The floral and calligraphic designs are similar to those found in most Islamic art. This piece is part of the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York

The Seljuk dynasty that ruled Iran, Iraq, Asia Minor, and Syria in the 12th and 13th centuries found substitutes for porcelain, and the Iranian cities of Rayy and Kashan became centers for this white ware. Another fine Seljuk type was Mina'i ware, an enamel-overglaze pottery that, in its delicacy, imitated illuminated manuscripts. Kashan potters, after the 13th-century Mongol conquests, used green glazes influenced by Chinese celadons. Cobalt-blue glazes appeared in Iran in the 9th century but later fell out of use. They were taken up again in the 14th to the 18th century in response to the popularity of blue-and-white ware with Chinese and European clients.

Iznik was the center for Turkish pottery. There slip-painted pieces influenced by Persian and Afghanistani ware predated the Ottoman Turks' conquest of the region. Later, between 1490 and 1700, Iznik ware displayed decorations painted under a thin transparent glaze on a loose-textured white body; in its three stages the designs were in cobalt blue, then turquoise and purple, then red.

During the Safavid dynasty, Kubachi ware, contemporary to Iznik pottery, was probably made in northwestern Iran, and not at the town of Kubachi where it was found. Characteristic Kubachi pieces were large polychrome plates, painted underneath their crackle glazes. Gombroon ware, exported from that Persian Gulf port to Europe and the Far East in the 16th and 17th centuries, featured incised decorations on translucent white earthenware bodies. Copper-colored Persian lusterware was fashionable in the 17th century, as was polychrome painted ware.

In general, Islamic pottery was made in molds. Shapes were either Chinese inspired or were the basic shapes of metalwork. In addition to lusterware, the most creative work was the manufacture of tiles for mosques.

Europe to 1800

Islamic tin-glazed pottery and lusterware became the ceramics of Spain from the 13th through the 15th century. At times called Hispano-Moresque ware, it had its center of manufacture at the Valencian town of Manises. It was exported from Mallorca, and thus the extremely popular Italian Renaissance ceramics that it influenced were known as maiolica, from the Italian name for Mallorca.

Maiolica, Faience, and Delftware
Delftware Plate This plate, based on an Italian folk design, is an example of delftware, which was popular in England in the mid-1700s. It comes from the English town of Lambeth. Delftware features bright colors painted over a white glaze previously fired.

In maiolica, painting over the white glaze was further developed, in yellow, orange, green, turquoise, blue, purplish-brown, and black. Frequently a transparent overglaze was added, as well as incised and molded-relief decoration. Made in many Italian cities in the 15th to 16th century, this ware bore little resemblance to its Spanish namesake. After 1600 the name faience was applied to the French variation of this tin-glazed ware, as well as to 16th- and 17th-century French and Belgian majolica-influenced pottery. In Germany, where it flourished until the 18th century, it was called fayence. After the center of its manufacture shifted from Antwerp to Delft in the mid-17th century, the name delftware, even for its English variation, came into use. The English delftware was made in London, Liverpool, and Bristol and in Dublin, until creamware (see Stoneware and Lead-Glazed Earthenware, below) began to replace it in the 1770s.

Tin-glazed ware remained popular in Europe until the early 19th century. It was made by dipping the biscuit-fired pot into a basic lead glaze to which tin oxide (an opacifier and whitener) had been added. This produced a dense white that completely covered the color of the clay body, providing a surface for painting any glaze color successful at moderate to high earthenware temperatures. Silver and gold were used for Spanish lusterware, painted over the fired glaze and refired in a low-temperature reduction kiln. In the 18th century, the fired tin glaze was painted with overglaze enamels and the pottery refired in a muffle kiln.

The full impact of Ming porcelain was felt throughout Europe in the first half of the 17th century, particularly in the golden age of delftware (1630-1700). The pottery became thinner, its decoration more delicate. Manganese purple outlines were drawn on the clay before the biscuit firing; then the underglaze blue and the final lead-and-tin glaze were applied. Tiles, plates, jugs, and vases were made, and the different Delft factory marks were imitated, even by the Chinese.

Stoneware and Lead-Glazed Earthenware
Wedgwood Vase This vase was designed by the English sculptor John Flaxman for Josiah Wedgwood in about 1780. It is made of Jasperware, with neoclassical scenes from Greek mythology molded in relief in white.Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York

European stoneware was developed in Germany at the end of the 14th century. It was salt-glazed: Common salt (an alkali) was thrown into the kiln, and soda from the salt created a glassy layer on the pot's surface. Hafner ware, a lead-glazed earthenware, was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, with many vessels imitating metal jugs and tankards. Traditional English earthenware was decorated with slips and lead glazed, as was central European peasant pottery, taken to America by emigrants.

English stoneware was made on a large scale only after the late 17th century. The best of Staffordshire white salt-glazed stoneware was made between 1720 and 1760. Staffordshire was also a center for creamware, a popular lead-glazed earthenware made of Devonshire white clay mixed with calcined flint. In 1754 the English ceramist Josiah Wedgwood began to experiment with colored creamware. He established his own factory, but often worked with others who did transfer printing (introduced by the Worcester Porcelain Company in the 1750s). He also produced red stoneware; basaltes ware, an unglazed black stoneware; and jasperware, made of white stoneware clay that had been colored by the addition of metal oxides. Jasperware was usually ornamented with white relief portraits or Greek classical scenes. Wedgwood's greatest contribution to European ceramics, however, was his fine pearl ware, an extremely pale creamware with a bluish tint to its glaze.

European Porcelain

Sèvres Porcelain Cup Sèvres is a type of French porcelain noted for its richly colored backgrounds and white panels decorated with birds. Made in the town of the same name in France, it gained popularity after 1706. The factory owed its prosperity in large part to the patronage of emperor Napoleon I and his wife, Josephine, whose portrait appears on this two-handled cup.Giraudon/Art Resource, NY

The first soft-paste porcelains, cream rather than white in color, were made in Italy in the 16th century. The technique of making hard-paste porcelain was developed by the German ceramist Johann Friedrich Böttiger in 1708 or 1709. A factory was established in Meissen, Germany, in 1710. Because Böttiger did some of his early work near the city of Dresden, Meissen porcelain is sometimes known as Dresden porcelain. The early success of Meissen was due in part to the high artistic level of its decoration. Meissen was the preferred European porcelain until about 1756, when Sèvres became increasingly popular. Sèvres, the most celebrated French porcelain, was first produced in Vincennes in 1738. Through the influence of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV, the factory was moved from Vincennes to Sèvres in 1756. Sèvres porcelain is renowned for its richly colored backgrounds and white panels decorated with birds. The production of hard-paste porcelain began in Limoges in 1771, when deposits of kaolin were discovered near that city. In 1784 the Limoges factory became a subsidiary of the royal factory in Sèvres.

The best early English porcelain was made in Chelsea in 1745. After its factory was sold to one in Derby in 1769, neoclassical style dominated domestic ware and figurines. In the 1740s a patent was taken out by porcelain makers at Bow in London, using bone ash in the clay body. The Lowestoft factory in Suffolk (established about 1757) used a similar formula. Glassy soft-paste porcelain was made in Staffordshire in the 18th century; Josiah Spode of that town was credited with having introduced the Staffordshire variety of Bow bone china.

19th and 20th Centuries

Stoneware Vase by Bernard Leach British potter and ceramist Bernard Howell Leach, influenced by his studies in Japanese ceramic traditions, inspired a revival of artistic pottery making in the 20th century. This vase, from 1957, shows the subtle tones and abstract decoration typical of Leach’s works.Peter Kinnear/Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York

Inexpensive transfer-printed wares for mass sale were popular in 19th-century England and on the Continent, as were relief-decorated wares. These spread to the United States, along with the manganese-brown Rockingham glazes developed in England in the early 19th century; the latter were popular with New Jersey and Ohio potteries. Mass-produced ware gradually displaced the dominant U.S. folk pottery, a vigorous salt-glazed stoneware.

Commercially produced ceramics after 1860 were of high quality. Some of the finest were and still are made by the Royal Porcelain factory in Copenhagen. The introduction of the art nouveau style, the Paris Exhibition of 1900, and the ideals of the Bauhaus school in the 1920s all influenced industrial ceramic design.

The individual studio or artist potter has been as important to the history of modern pottery as the industrial potter. The English Arts and Crafts movement of the 1860s influenced such potters as William De Morgan and (after 1871) the salt-glazed stoneware of the Doulton factories in Lambeth. In the United States the Rookwood factory (1880, Cincinnati, Ohio), the Grueby Faience Company (1897, Boston), and the Pewabic Pottery Works (1900, Detroit) brought prestige to the artist-potter. The international reputation of the English potters Bernard Leach—trained in Japan and inspired by Japanese and English folk potters—and Michael Ambrose Cardew—a leader in the 20th-century revival of pottery—further enhanced the contemporary tradition of the artist-artisan in clay. Pottery is also produced for a wide range of industrial purposes, including for use as plumbing fixtures and aerospace components.

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