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Korean Dragon Jar

Many Choson ceramics were simple and undecorated white wares, in keeping with Confucian ideals.
Korea, Choson dynasty, Maebyong Jar, 18th century, white porcelain with celadon glaze, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund and the Ellen and Fred Wells Fund

Blue-and-white Choson ceramics were made only for aristocrats. The blue color came from imported cobalt, which was very expensive.
Korea, Choson dynasty, Dragon Jar, 18th century, porcelain with underglaze cobalt design, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund

The liveliness of this bottle’s painted design is typical of ceramic decoration in the Choson dynasty.
Korea, Choson dynasty, Rice Bale Bottle, 15th century, glazed stoneware with painted slip decoration, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of funds from Fred and Ellen Wells

key idea
Chosen for the Choson

During the Choson dynasty (1392-1910), Korean rulers made Confucianism the official religion. Confucianism stresses living a simple and humble life, and Korean ceramics were influenced by this ideal. Their shape and decoration became simpler. Many early Choson wares were left undecorated except for a coat of white glaze.

The type of clay used by Korean potters changed, too. The dragon jar is made of porcelain. Created from a clay called kaolin, porcelain is white or grayish and very hard. The Chinese were the first to discover how to make it. Both the Chinese and the Koreans felt that porcelain objects complemented the Confucian virtues of humility and simplicity.

As time passed, Confucianism became less strict, and potters began to add simple designs in blue, brown, or red. The dragon jar’s brown decoration was painted with iron oxide. Unlike the precise detailing on Chinese porcelains, this Korean design is carefree and whimsical. For example, the dragon’s scales are just large dabs of color. (Imagine a paint-filled brush pouncing across the jar, guided by the artist’s hand.) Such playful brushwork also appears in the dragon’s whiskers and the clouds. This kind of painting may look easy, but ceramic artists needed great skill to decorate porcelain. A quick-moving hand was important because porcelain absorbed the paint fast.

Take a closer look at the dragon’s whimsical features. It is this spontaneous, painterly quality that makes Korean ceramics unique and admired.
January 2010