Highlights from the Gettys’ iconic collection that speak to five centuries of intercultural exchange
Every inch of the maximalist interiors of the 30,000-square-foot San Francisco townhouse owned by Ann and Gordon Getty contained densely layered works of art and decorative objects, spanning five centuries of intercontinental trade and cultural exchange. Designed by Mrs. Getty, who drew on her archaeological training and extensive world travels, the rooms were filled to the brim with striking juxtapositions across period and style, generating surprising resonances and thought-provoking dialogue stemming from each item’s fascinating provenance.
Offered in The Ann & Gordon Getty Collection, a series of landmark sales at Christie’s beginning in October 2022, the nearly 1,500 works of decorative and fine arts from the couple’s San Francisco residence speak to the longstanding trade, cultural exchange and aesthetic influence between Europe and Asia from the time of the Silk Road to the present.
Take, for example, the Gettys’ set of 12 blue and white porcelain bowls that were part of the famous Hatcher Cargo: In 1983, the British marine salvage diver Captain Michael Hatcher recovered a cache of untouched Chinese porcelain that had sunk in a shipwreck in the South China Sea two and a half centuries earlier.
‘These items were seemingly headed towards Jakarta for trade with Europeans, and you can date fairly precisely when they were lost at sea,’ says Carleigh Queenth, Head of European Ceramics and Glass at Christie’s. ‘The Hatcher Cargo pieces have a characteristic haze to them because they sat at the bottom of the ocean for hundreds of years.’
‘What's also interesting,’ adds Jonathan Rendell, Deputy Chairman and Head of Sales Curation, Americas, ‘is that tea bowls would quite often be used as ballast on the ships that were bringing the tea. So, it was like a whole tea service going on, all in one fell swoop.’
These Chinese export bowls, painted with various landscape medallions on a pierced trellis-pattern ground above a lappet border, were made in Jingdezhen, China’s primary area of porcelain production, during the Transitional Period from the Ming to Qing dynasties. With the decline of large-scale manufacturing for the imperial court, porcelain makers turned to producing goods for trading companies from Europe, like the Dutch East India Company, as well as merchants from Japan and new domestic customers.
In Mrs. Getty’s studies, she travelled to Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, to meet with artisans and learn more about the processes and techniques behind Chinese hard-paste porcelain, also known as ‘true porcelain’, where the art originated. It was highly valued and sought after in Europe in the 16th to 18th centuries.
In some cases, Europeans would send design motifs, such as a coat of arms or an engraving, to be painted by Chinese artisans onto the porcelain. One such example from the Getty Collection is a famille rose Pronk handwashing cistern and cover from the Qianlong period (1736-1795).
Famille rose — meaning ‘pink family’ — is a type of Chinese porcelain that emerged in the 18th century characterized by its pink overglaze enamel. The rare Pronk cistern and cover being offered features a design by the Dutch artist Cornelis Pronk, which was reproduced in porcelain by Chinese artists for the European market.
Or consider the Gettys’ Don Quixote oval platter, another work of Chinese export porcelain from the Qianlong period, featuring an iconic scene from the Spanish novel rendered by Chinese artisans in famille rose enamels and incorporating Chinese landscape motifs.
These works, containing a mélange of signifiers, provide a snapshot of the complex web of exchange and influence between Europe and Asia, extending to both the form and techniques of manufacture as well as the design motifs and imagery.
In 1710, Augustus II, King of Poland — who famously traded a regiment of soldiers for a collection of Chinese porcelain vases — founded the Meissen manufactory, the first hard-paste porcelain manufactory in Europe, which produced works for the European market. The imitation of Chinese and other East Asian motifs and techniques in Western art became known as Chinoiserie.
The Gettys’ collection includes a large, assembled Meissen porcelain part dinner service with a Kakiemon-inspired design featuring a prowling tiger among bamboo. Kakiemon is a style of Japanese porcelain with enamel decoration that was frequently imitated by European porcelain manufacturers in the Rococo period.
The grand houses of the royal families and aristocracy of Europe at the time featured decorative works exported from Asia alongside works made domestically with Asian-inspired design. The landscapes, architecture and cultures of Asia were also frequent subjects of the European view painters at the height of the Grand Tour in the 18th century. They catered to the demand for exotic images of the East with lush, fanciful depictions.
One such capriccio, a highlight of the Getty collection, is a painting by the 18th-century Italian view painter, Antonio Joli, showing the French Ambassador approaching the King of Siam’s Palace in a state barge in 1685. Joli referenced two prints by the Austrian architectural historian Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach in composing the ornate dragon-hulled ceremonial barges and the towering white and blue pagoda, based on the famous Porcelain Tower of Nanjing.
‘Talk about Asia meets Europe — we have an Italian artist in the 1760s painting a view for British Grand Tourists of the French ambassador meeting the King of Siam in a fantastical composition that incorporates the famous pagoda in Nanjing, China,’ says Rendell, ‘I mean, it’s totally surreal.’
There was also robust demand for European decorative objects exported to East Asia, with mechanical gadgets such as clocks garnering particular interest. The Gettys’ ‘Turkish Bedroom,’ which evokes a European fantasy of Ottoman, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian décor, featured a Victorian cut-glass throne chair and vanity made in the late-19th century by Osler, a British company that produced significant furniture for the Maharajahs and other Indian elites.
The Getty collection also includes a British-made George III tower clock almost certainly created for the Chinese market. Its four tiers echo the pagoda silhouette in the Joli painting.
‘These were the highest level of diplomatic gifts to Emperor Qianlong,’ says Rendell. The Chinese emperor who ruled for the greater part of the 18th century was fascinated with modern Western timepieces, known for their precision and accuracy, as well as their complex mechanical functions, like chimes and various automata.
This particular example contains a four-tune musical pin barrel, which activates 12 hammers on 10 bells. When powered the paste-set finial and three potted pineapple plants revolve as the clock chimes.
The timepiece appeared in a 2006 exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco titled A Curious Affair: The Fascination between East and West, which was drawn largely from the Getty collection.
These are just a sampling of the works from the Gettys’ richly eclectic and thematically linked collection, which speaks to the mutual exchange between cultures that has produced pivotal breakthroughs in technique and design in decorative and fine arts throughout history. The collection further underscores art’s power to communicate and generate dialogue that transcends the passage of great distances and time.