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Live like a Rockefeller — A pair of Chinese export spaniels

Chinese export porcelain was ‘an early and continued passion’ for Peggy and David Rockefeller, says specialist Elizabeth Seigel. Here, with the Year of the Dog upon us, she explains what these pieces reveal about trade with China in the 18th century

‘Bird and animal motifs can be found in works of all mediums across the Peggy and David Rockefeller collection, reflecting their love of the outdoors and the natural world,’ says Elizabeth Seigel, Decorative Arts specialist at Christie's in New York. 

Animals are particularly well represented in the couple’s trove of Chinese export porcelain. This pair of spaniel pups, dating to the Qianlong period (1736-1795), was displayed in one of the four entrance rooms of the Rockefellers’ 65th Street townhouse, atop a 19th-century card table and below a painting by Maurice de Vlaminck.

'The whimsy of these cheerful pups must have particularly appealed to Peggy and David,’ Seigel says. 'They would have appreciated, too, the purported Chinese origins of some spaniel breeds — a wonderful example of East-West connections. These spaniels tie together 18th-century trends in porcelain production and the export trade.’

Christie’s Decorative Arts specialist Elizabeth Seigel with the 18th-century Chinese export porcelain dogs from The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller

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Christie’s Decorative Arts specialist Elizabeth Seigel with the 18th-century Chinese export porcelain dogs from The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller

In the early 16th century, with commercial trade established between Europe and Asia, Chinese potters began to produce porcelain specifically for export to the West. In their decoration and even function, these porcelains differed from those made for use in China.

The market for Chinese export porcelain reached its peak in the 18th century, with animals a popular subject. Some export porcelain birds and animals were modelled on European ceramics; others drew on the long Chinese tradition of observing the natural world. Chinese export dogs in particular reflected the European trend of depicting ‘man’s best friend’ in portraiture.

The porcelain pups were displayed beneath Maurice de Vlaminck’s Suburban Landscape in the Rockefellers’ New York townhouse © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York  ADAGP, Paris
The porcelain pups were displayed beneath Maurice de Vlaminck’s Suburban Landscape in the Rockefellers’ New York townhouse © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Certain dog breeds may also have been introduced to Europe in the early years of the export trade. ‘Some spaniel breeds are thought by many to be native East Asian dogs that were introduced to Europe and ultimately became status symbols,’ says Seigel. ‘In fact, they became so popular that Europeans began to commission porcelain figurines of their new pets.’ In other words, says Seigel, ‘the figurines, made in China and exported to Europe, depicted dogs which had also come from China.’

Chinese export porcelain ‘was an early and continual passion’ for David and Peggy, says Seigel. ‘Their 65th Street townhouse and Hudson Pines home were full of animal figurines, placed right where they could be seen and enjoyed every day.’