By the late 17th century, tea-drinking had become a refined social custom amongst the Dutch and British upper-classes. Teapots, canisters, tea bowls and saucers contributed to the vast array of fashionable porcelain wares that were reaching Europe from China and Japan via the Dutch East India Company’s trading ships. Although the first porcelain teawares exported to Europe were almost exclusively blue and white, later developments in enamel colours and techniques, along with specific demands from wealthy Europeans, led to increasingly personalised decoration. A wide range of European copper-plate engravings were brought to China by Jesuit missionaries and circulated among Chinese enamellers. Landscapes, historical, mythological and political events were copied from these onto porcelain wares destined for the export market.
This teapot’s decoration is likely drawn from such an engraving and illustrates a scene from the Decameron, a collection of 100 stories by the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). The stories were mostly romantic in nature and considered a masterpiece of Italian prose. The painted scene depicts the enlightenment of Cymon, the simpleton son of a Cypriot noble, after coming upon the beautiful sleeping Iphigenia and her attendants. Experiencing feminine beauty for the first time, Cymon immediately puts his oafish past behind him to pursue philosophy, civility and moral excellence, enabling him to win Iphigenia’s hand in marriage. The tale of Cymon and Iphigenia was the most frequently depicted of all those in the Decameron, and inspired painters such as Rubens, Frederick Leighton, Angelica Kauffmann and John Everett Millais.