Kraak porcelain is a type of Chinese export porcelain produced mainly from the Wanli reign (1573–1620) until around 1640. It was among the first Chinese export ware to arrive in Europe in mass quantities, and was frequently featured in Dutch still life paintings of foreign luxuries, as in the one by Jan Davidsz de Heem at right.
Kraak porcelain is believed to be named after the Portuguese ships (Carracks), in which it was transported. Carrak—or caracca in Italian or Spanish—is itself believed to be a derivative of the Arabic term for the type of trading ships used in Renaissance Mediterranean trade: qaraquir, meaning simply merchant vessels. Although the link with Carrak ships is generally accepted as the root of the name Kraak ware, other origins of the label have also been proposed. For example, Rinaldi points out that in Dutch the verb kraken means to break - a characteristic that certainly is common among Kraak wares. Moreover the term refers to the type of shelves that often displayed import blue and white porcelains in Friesland, north of Holland.
Kraak ware is almost all painted in the underglazed cobalt blue style that was perfected under the Ming dynasty, although a few examples of dishes over-painted with vitreous enamel glaze have survived (see for example this dish in the Princessehof Museum, Leeuwarden ). It is often decorated with variations on the more traditional motifs found on Chinese porcelain, such as stylized flowers (peonies and chrysanthemums) and Buddhist auspicious emblems. However, most characteristic of Kraak decoration is the use of foliated radial panels. In other words, the surface of the porcelain is divided into segments, each containing its own discrete image (see example in the Met ).
Shapes included dishes, bowls, and vases. Kraak ware bowls fall into roughly two types; the first is a deep, unrimmed Chinese style bowl, taking roughly the same shape as the Qing enameled cup, (at left). The second type are called Klapmutsen. A Klapmuts is somewhat akin to what we would today call a soup-bowl—a broader-based, rimmed style that was new in the Chinese repertoire, and seems to have been exclusively exported to Europe. (Two such examples are at the center of de Heem's Still Life, above: one holds fruit, and the other a shaved ham.) The specialist Maura Rinaldi suggests that the latter type was designed specifically to serve a European clientele, since there do not seem to be many surviving examples elsewhere in the world, even in the spectacular Topkapı Palace collection, which houses the most extensive selection of Kraak ware of all. Noting the importance of soups and stews in European diet, Rinaldi proposes that Klapmusten were developed to satisfy a foreign demand, noting that the heavy, long-handled, metal spoon that is common in Europe would have toppled and chipped the high-walled Chinese bowl.
The quality of the porcelain used to form Kraak ware is much disputed among scholars; some claim that it is surprisingly good, in certain cases indistinguishable from that produced on the domestic market; others imply that it's a dismal shadow of the truly fine ceramics China was capable of producing. Rinaldi comes to a more even-handed conclusion, noting that it "forms a middle category between much heavier wares, often coarse, and definitely finer wares with well levigated clay and smooth glaze that does not shrink on the rim... " Thus looking at ceramic production in China at the time from a larger prospective, kraak ware falls between the best examples and a typical provincial output, such as the contemporary Swatow ware.
Kraak was copied and imitated all over the world, by potters in Arita, Japan and Persia—where Dutch merchants turned when the fall of the Ming Dynasty rendered Chinese originals unavailable—and ultimately in Delft. As noted above, it made a frequent appearance in the sumptuous Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century (see also the detail of de Heem's Banquet Still Life, at right).
Today a great deal is learned about Kraak ware through excavation of shipwrecks by marine archaeologists. Because the wreck can usually be dated with some degree of certainty, its contents provides a clear snapshot of production at the moment the vessel went down. Moreover, its location can also indicate its destination point, thus revealing much about international trade routes and outposts at the time. In contrast to the other major European imports of the time (for example textiles or spices), ceramics are able to withstand exposure to water, thus making it the ideal merchandise to serve as ballast cargo in the great ships. Yet from another perspective, porcelain's durability in this sense, even withstanding centuries of submersion at the bottom of the sea, means that it has been the good that has endured (sometimes even intact) to tell these tales.
- Rinaldi, p. 32
- Rinaldi, p. 60; Kerr, p. 38.
- Rinaldi, pp. 11, 118.
- Howard, p. 1 of "Introduction;" Crowe, p. 11
- Kerr, p. 38.
- Rinaldi, pp. 12, 67.
- Crowe, p. 22; Howard, p. 7 of "Introduction."
- For a study on foreign objects in Dutch paintings, see Hochstrasser, Still Life and Trade.
- Carswell, p. 168.
- Crowe, p. 20; and Howard, p. 6 of "Introduction."
- For a fascinating recent account, brilliantly illustrated, see Jörg, Porcelain from the Vung Tau wreck. A very brief online summary is here: 
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- Carswell, John. Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and Its Impact on the Western World. Exhibition Catalogue. Chicago: David and Alfred Smart Gallery, 1985.
- Crowe, Yolande. Persia and China: Safavid Blue and White Ceramics in the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1501–1738. London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 2002.
- Hochstrasser, Julie. Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.
- Howard, David and John Ayers. China for the West: Chinese Porcelain and other Decorative Arts for Export, Illustrated from the Mottahedeh Collection. London and New York: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1978.
- Jörg, Christiaan J.A. Porcelain from the Vung Tau wreck: The Hallstrom Excavation. Singapore: Sun Tree Publishing, 2001.
- Kerr, Rosemary. “Early Export Ceramics.” In Chinese Export Art and Design. Ed. Craig Clunas. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1987.
- Kroes, Jochem. Chinese Armorial Porcelain for the Dutch Market: Chinese Porcelain with Coats of Arms of Dutch Families. Den Haag: Centraal Bureau voor Generalogie and Zwolle: Waanders Publishers, 2007.
- Rinaldi, Maura. Kraak Porcelain: A Moment in the History of Trade. London: Bamboo Pub, 1989.
- Kraak Ware Dish, early 17th century; Chinese for the European market; Hard paste; Diam. 11¼ in. (28.6 cm); Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1995.268.1 
- Deep plate with Blue-and-White Decoration of Auspicious Motifs, Ming dynasty, second quarter of 17th century; Porcelain, Kraak ware H: 5.8, D: 32.6 cm; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 46.501 
- Plate with Blue-and-White Decoration of Chicken in Landscape, Late Ming dynasty; Porcelain, Kraak ware; H: 2.8, D: 21 cm; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 54.1458 
- Pair of Chinese Blue and White Kraak Ware Dishes, Wanli Reign; Christie's, London: Lot 478/Sale 5093, 29 March 2007
- Kraak ware collection in the Princesshof Museum, Leeuwarden Netherlands [dead link]
- A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics from The Metropolitan Museum of Art