The deep fish pond on this dazzling bowl exudes an irresistible warm sentiment that instantly touches the heart. The bowl is unrivalled in its design, its painting quality, shape and size, and only two comparable smaller pieces appear to exist, both in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. Although the fish pond design has been frequently used as a motif on Chinese porcelain, it is hardly ever infused with as much life as on the present bowl, whose shape cleverly evokes the illusion of gentle underwater motion.
Fish paintings were a recognized, if not widespread, genre of Chinese ink painting since the Song dynasty (960-1279), perhaps made popular through Liu Cai, a court painter of the late Northern Song (960-1127) specialized in paintings of fishes. The most famous painting attributed to him is the two-and-a-half-meter long handscroll Fish Swimming amid Falling Flowers today in the St. Louis Art Museum (97:1926.). The representation of fishes and their movements was perceived as a task yet more challenging than the depiction of other animals and birds, because their habitat impedes observation, and the resulting naturalism is awesome for painters not working directly from nature.
The topos of fishes swimming in a pond was in China inextricably associated with one of the most famous passages of the book Zhuangzi by Zhuang Zhou (c. 369-c. 286 BC), Daoism’s foremost thinker, where fish feature frequently in allegories. In this passage the free-thinking spirit of Zhuangzi, who comments on the pleasures of fishes darting around where they please, is opposed by the methodological reasoning of the Confucian Huizi, who challenges the Daoist’s legitimacy to talk about the feelings of fishes, not being a fish himself. After some exchanges, the Daoist eventually wins the argument by refusing to submit to his opponent’s formal logic.
The ‘Pleasures of Fishes’ thus became a byword for freedom from restraints, one of the perennial ideals of China’s literati, which represented either unachievable dream, for the members of the bureaucracy, or perceived reality, for those who had withdrawn from it. Daoist thought flourished in the early Ming period (1368-1644), although the Xuande Emperor (r. 1426-35) did not propagate himself as a particularly fervent proponent of Daoism. Among the imperial princes, however, patronage of Daoist causes was strong enough to provoke several memorials to be handed in to the court, which requested a ban on the furthering of new Daoist monasteries (Richard G. Wang, The Ming Prince and Daoism. Institutional Patronage of an Elite, Oxford, 2012).
Even without the philosophical significance of this motif in mind, the serene state of the four fat fishes floating through water plants, seemingly at total ease within their surroundings, is palpable when immersing oneself in this pond, which emanates an air of peace and contentment. Grouped in two pairs, the fishes depict a carp and a mandarin fish, or Chinese perch, each confronted with a type of bream, fangyu, characterized by the bumpy forehead often developed by older fishes. While the former two are well known from Chinese porcelain designs, the latter, although, like the other two species, part of China’s staple diet for centuries, are rarely depicted on porcelain. The fishes are alternating with three large and two small clumps of lotus with fully opened blooms, buds, pods and large leaves in different stages of development, interspersed with long undulating fronds of pond weeds, clumps of clover fern and some fallen flowers. The latter may be meant to evoke the enchanting topic of Liu Cai’s painting, where some fishes are chasing blossoms shed by an overhanging flowering branch. The deep, barbed mallow shape of the bowl, with ten sharp ridges inside and with the foot cut to correspond, cleverly reinforces the impression of rippling waves and together with the naturalistic depiction of the fishes creates an astonishingly vibrant, lively effect.
On the present bowl, the painters managed to exploit the cobalt pigment to maximum effect and to create an amazingly rich tonal variation in this monochrome palette: the fishes are drawn with dark blue outlines and details over pale blue washes; on the leaves the veins are in contrast reserved in white, being incised through the blue washes down to the porcelain body; and the large leaves that are rendered with frayed edges, as if about to wilt, are accentuated with dark heaping and piling, a feature that appears to have been deliberately induced.
A large wilting lotus leaf, similarly rendered with fuzzy edges, appears next to a diminutive bird in an ink painting of a lotus pond signed yubi (‘imperial brush’), executed by the Xuande Emperor, who was not only a devoted patron of the arts but is also considered as a gifted artist himself; see Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall, eds, Ming. 50 Years that Changed China, The British Museum, London, 2014, p. 177, fig. 154.
As a porcelain motif, the lotus pond was taken up by Jingdezhen’s porcelain painters already in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), and some of the finest Yuan blue-and-white jars are painted with this subject, such as, for example, the ‘fish’ jar in the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, from the Ataka collection (see Tōyō tōji no tenkai/Masterpieces of Oriental Ceramics, The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 1999, cat. no. 33). The scene on the present bowl appears to have been directly inspired by such Yuan porcelain prototypes – a very rare feature for Xuande imperial blue-and-white. The four fishes on our bowl depict the same species as those on the jar in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; and another exhibited in 2002 at Eskenazi, London; and the feature of the frilly lotus leaves is already found on the famous Yuan jar in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, from the Oscar C. Raphael collection, which depicts ducks in a lotus pond. For the two ‘fish’ jars see Chinese Art under the Mongols. The Yüan Dynasty (1279-1368), The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1968, cat. no. 155; and Two Rare Chinese Porcelain Fish Jars of the 14th and 16th Centuries, Eskenazi, London, 2002, cat. no. 1, where all three ‘fish’ jars are illustrated together, compared with related Chinese ink paintings of fishes, including the painting by Liu Cai, and where the fish-pond motif is further discussed by Regina Krahl and Sarah Wong; for the Fitzwilliam Museum’s ‘ducks’ jar see Margaret Medley, Yüan Porcelain and Stoneware, London, 1974, col. pl. C.
Only one other Xuande bowl of this basic shape and design, of lower proportions and much smaller in size (18.4 cm), appears to have been published, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Museum’s exhibition Mingdai Xuande guanyao jinghua tezhan tulu/Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 140, but two such bowls are listed in the inventory of the holdings of the National Palace Museum Gugong ciqi lu [Record of porcelains from the Old Palace], Taipei, 1961-6, vol. 2, part 1, p. 124. No comparable piece has ever been offered at auction or seems to be preserved in any other public or private collection.
The Ming imperial kilns experimented with this design also on even smaller bowls: a related mallow-shaped bowl (15 cm) discarded at the kilns, also of deep bell shape and painted with a similar design, has been reconstructed from sherds excavated at the Jingdezhen kiln sites, and included in the exhibition Jingdezhen chutu Ming Xuande guanyao ciqi/Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 103-2, together with a related fragmentary bowl of circular section (15.8 cm), cat. no. 103-1.
The present bowl shape was also used for a Xuande bowl decorated with ten small dragon roundels and a band of petal panels, but to strikingly different effect; see Sotheby’s Hong Kong – Twenty Years, 1973-1993, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 60, for a bowl sold in these rooms, 16th November 1973, lot 135 (fig. 1). On the formal ‘dragon’ bowl, the indentations emphasize the solemnity of the design; on the halcyon ‘fish pond’ bowl, the undulant sides highlight the vivacious air of the painterly motif.
A reduced version of this fish pond design can also be found on four brush washers of Xuande mark and period, of similar mallow-shaped section, and on some circular dishes, all with shallow sides and thus nowhere near as striking as the present piece, which undoubtedly displays the design to best advantage. Compare a brush washer illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 4, no. 1653, sold in these rooms, 7th April 2011, lot 54, where the other three washers of this design are listed; for a dish of this design see the National Palace Museum exhibition 1998, op.cit., cat. no. 180, illustrated together with a dish with a lotus pond without fishes, cat. no. 179. Fragmentary washers and dishes of this design were also recovered from the waste heaps of the kilns, see the Chang Foundation exhibition, 1998, op.cit., cat. nos 19-2 and 86-2.
The design was also copied later in the Ming and probably the Qing (1644-1911) dynasty. A very shallow mallow-shaped bowl (or deep dish) with a similar fish pond design, of Jiajing mark and period (1522-66), in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, was included in the Museum’s exhibition Fu shou kang ning. Jixiang tu'an ciqi tezhan tulu/Good Fortune, Long Life, Health, and Peace: A Special Exhibition of Porcelains with Auspicious Designs, Taipei, 1995, cat. no. 72; and a very large bowl of similar shape and design in the same museum, inscribed with a Xuande reign mark and still included as being of the period in the Museum’s 1960s inventory Gugong ciqi lu, op.cit., p. 124, was included as a later copy in the Museum’s exhibition Ming Xuande ciqi tezhan mulu/Catalogue of a Special Exhibition of Hsuan-te Period Porcelain, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1980, cat. no. 28; it probably dates from the Qing period.
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