5: Delft Tile


Dutch, Enameled Delftware Dutch Tile, ca 1600-1670, (Delft, Netherlands) Earthenware Pottery

The object is a square, white Delft style earthenware tile ornamented with the blue image of a bird standing in water and four single flowers at each corner of the tile. The tile was manufactured in the Netherlands, but its blue and white glaze and iconography are deliberately made to resemble Chinese porcelain. In the age of flourishing trade, the Dutch desired to import crafts, particularly from China, in order to evoke the worldliness, economic prosperity, and superior taste of the period.

Delftware is course pottery, yellow or brownish in color, covered with a coating called stanniferous enamel, composed of glass, oxide of lead, and a certain proportion of oxide of tin.[1] Application of heat to the oxide of tin gives the enamel its white color and makes it adaptable to being painted in colors.[2] The Dutch were impressed by the fine appearance and ornament of stanniferous enamel created by Iberian Moors and Italians. They imported this process to Antwerp in the sixteenth century.[3] The creation of the guild of St. Luke in 1611 rapidly advanced the manufacturing of fine wares in Delft, an important city and a center of industry and commerce in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century.[4]

This stanniferous pottery came into prominence in order to mimic porcelain from China. Although porcelain imported from China was hugely popular, the Dutch were unable to recreate porcelain because they lacked knowledge of its composition. To produce porcelain the Chinese baked fine, white clay called kaolin in high temperatures.[5] This produced a well vitrified ceramic that could withstand changes in temperature and the wear of many years.[6] Porcelain’s hard, thin surface retained its ability to hold liquids despite chips. The Dutch lacked clay that was white and fine like those of Chinese potters and did not heat their furnaces to the high temperatures of the Chinese.[7] Instead, they produced delftware, which was more prone to deterioration because it was not as well vitrified.[8]

While Holland gained a monopoly on the porcelain replication market between 1640 and 1800, to understand why the Dutch replicated porcelain, we must examine why porcelain was so coveted by the Dutch specifically.[9] The Dutch were not the first Europeans to bring porcelain from Asia to Europe. Spain and Portugal preceded the Netherlands in transporting porcelain from Asia, but they never reached the scale of porcelain importation that the Dutch obtained during the seventeenth century. [10]

There were several factors that caused the Netherlands to be particularly interested in porcelain. One major factor was that porcelain was still a rare and costly commodity in the Netherlands at the start of the seventeenth century.[11] Porcelain was especially valued because of its unique material properties. It was also valued for its craft and “exotic” decorations, all coupled with the distance it traveled to get to Europe and the cost to transport it.[12]  Demographic changes in the Netherlands also led to the increase in porcelain interest. After the fall of Antwerp in 1585, large numbers of young merchants migrated from the Southern Netherlands to the Northern Netherlands and became very successful.[13] These individuals felt no shame in buying porcelain because they came from a culture where individuals displayed their wealth.[14] Porcelain showed the individual’s power via their status and wealth as burghers as well as their country’s power via the vast trading network of the Netherlands.[15]

The Dutch responded to this increased interest in porcelain by creating Delftware to imitate both the appearance and meanings of porcelain. Delftware was made by processing raw, grounded up materials until the clay turned into a proper state to be worked and formed into bowls, pots, or tiles.[16] These objects were fired and dipped into the enamel glaze to create Delftware’s iconic white exterior. Then, the object’s tacky, milky surface was ready to be painted and fired for a second time. These objects were deliberately produced to model Oriental porcelain in design and color, which was primarily blue and white. The Oriental taste was pure and simple with decorations of “a spray of flowers or grasses, or a branch of almond, cherry, or plum with a butterfly or a bird” and the Dutch painters aimed to copy this aesthetic.[17]

The Dutch fascination with Asian porcelain, coupled with their inability to produce it on their own, caused delftware to be in high demand. Painted delftware was used for many items such as medicinal jars, mugs, and dishes.[18] In particular, Delftware tiles, such as our object, became commonplace in Dutch homes. An average Dutch individual would have decorated their walls with Delftware tiles to seem worldly and cultured. Paintings during the time period indicate that tiles were used as baseboards and around fireplaces. The Milkmaid, ca. 1658, by Johannes Vermeer (below left), shows white tiles around the baseboard with images in the center of the tile, similar to the design and color of our tile. In The Goldweigher, ca. 1670, by Cornelis de Man (below right), the fireplace is surrounded by white, square tiles of similar design. Such Delftware tiles served a practical and aesthetic purpose as they were easy to clean and could be used in fireboxes for fire protection.[19] Although the tiles merely imitated porcelain, they still were still associated with ideas of wealth, trade, exoticness, and prosperity that were attached to porcelain.

The nexus between Delftware and ideas of status, commercial prosperity, and exoticism is tied to the political and economic context of the time. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch were particularly proud of their domestic craftsmanship as well as their wealth and global knowledge gained through their extensive trade network. The cultural desire to exhibit these values juxtaposed with the expense of importing porcelain and the Dutch’s inability to produce it, created the need to mass produce high quality items that imitated Chinese porcelain’s aesthetic and physical properties. Thus, the Delftware tile speaks to how seemingly commonplace objects embody the Dutch’s perception of themselves and of other cultures.

Katelyn Feliciano and Stefanie Wolf


[1] N. Hudson Moore, Collector’s Handbooks: Delftware Dutch and English (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Publishers, 1908), 3.

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 6-7.

[5] “Chinese Porcelain,” China Highlights, accessed April 19, 2016. http://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/culture/china-porcelain.htm.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age, ed. Karina H. Corrigan, Jan van Campen and Femke Diercks, with Janet C. Blyberg (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015), 142.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Moore, Delftware Dutch, 8.

[17] Ibid., 16.

[18] Ibid., 13.

[19] Ibid.