PROPERTY OF A JAPANESE FAMILY COLLECTION
Antique and Modern Chinese and Japanese Objects of Art, Curios, Paintings, Prints, Textiles and Embroideries, The American Art Galleries, New York, January 1905, cat. no. 352 (illustrated).
A Glimpse of the Past, Screened through the Present
This porcelain masterpiece is not only a triumph of craftsmanship designed to answer to the exorbitant standards of technical proficiency and the insatiable demand for stylistic novelty at the court; the rich tableau that it paints of the past and the present make it a witty statement and an astute commentary about the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795). This vase, and its pair, are unique in design, as is typical of yangcai, the Emperor’s special commissions from Jingdezhen.
Reticulated yangcai vases with double walls (jiaceng linglong) represent one of the last great innovations developed by Tang Ying (1682-1756), the imperial kilns’ creative supervisor, specially for the Qianlong Emperor. The time they were conceived in the early 1740s saw the production of some of the most exquisite porcelains at the imperial ateliers inside the Forbidden City in Beijing, where porcelains were treated like paintings; but Beijing could only operate on a small scale, both in terms of quantity and size. The imperial workshops at Jingdezhen were not limited in this way and Tang Ying clearly realized that he needed to exploit this advantage to the fullest, if he wanted to impress the Emperor. In his development of yangcai at Jingdezhen, he emphasized exclusive designs and individual attention to each piece or pair. Every piece was a technical tour de force involving dozens of different techniques and production processes. Some, like reticulated vases, were so challenging that he apologized to the Emperor for not submitting more to the Palace; and pieces like the present vase were an extraordinary challenge also to the designer.
The openwork design of this vase is composed of highly stylised archaistic dragons, which are borrowed from archaic ritual bronzes. In the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770-256 BC), the dragon motif developed into more and more abstract, angular interlaced scrollwork, with the animals’ limbs turned into comma-shaped extensions and their heads so small and stylised that only the occasional eye that can be made out – here emphasized in gilding – allows for a representational reading. Such designs are ubiquitous on bronzes of the period, whether in relief or inlay or even in openwork, like on the handles of a highly complex fanghu in the Palace Museum, Beijing, of the 7th/6th century BC (The Great Bronze Age of China, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1980, cat. no. 67; fig. 1).
The design of fishes evokes associations hardly less ancient, going back to the book Zhuangzi by Zhuang Zhou (c.369-c.286 BC), China’s foremost Daoist thinker, who used fish frequently in allegories. The pleasures of fishes darting around as they please became a topos that to China’s elite immediately evoked the idealized freedom from restraints and thus a most desirable existence. To the Emperor, of course, it must have been a purely philosophical construct of ideas with little connection to reality. With this Daoist message, fishes frequently appeared in Chinese art. The lively depiction on this vase, with pairs of fish swimming among waterweeds and fallen peach blossoms, would almost certainly have called to mind the most famous fish painting by the Northern Song (960-1127) court painter Liu Cai, Fish Swimming amid Falling Flowers (today in the St. Louis Art Museum, 97:1926). On this vase, the different fishes are depicted in a highly exceptional and totally new manner, carved in relief, and the enamels are superbly employed to render their iridescent shimmering skin.
The celadon-coloured reticulated walls equally refer to the Song dynasty, but to the Southern Song (1127-1279). Vases constructed in this way probably originated with the official (guan) kilns of Hangzhou, as evidenced by two fragmentary pear-shaped vases excavated at Laohudong (Du Zhengxian, ed., Hangzhou Laohudong yaozhi ciqi jingxuan [Selection of porcelains from the Laohudong kiln sites in Hangzhou], Beijing, 2002, pls 24 and 25). They are much better known, however, from the Longquan kilns, also in Zhejiang, which produced reticulated pear-shaped as well as meiping vases (see the catalogue of the Oriental Ceramic Society exhibition China without Dragons. Rare Pieces from Oriental Ceramic Society Members, Sotheby’s London, 2016, cat. no. 96, forthcoming 2018; fig. 2). Although these are today generally attributed to the 14th or early 15th century, for a Qing (1644-1911) emperor, Longquan most probably signified Song. The style is expressly referred to as ‘Longquan’ in the Zaobanchu records, where an entry for 1743 talks about a pair of yangcai yellow-ground reticulated vases with ‘Longquan openwork design’, for which stands were to be made.
When peering through the reticulated outer shell of our vase, the Qianlong Emperor would have had a real surprise, since nothing on the outside of this vase would have prepared him for what there is inside: Inside the vase, one can make out a blue-and-white vase painted in the style of Jingdezhen porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande reigns (1403-1435), perhaps the most admired blue-and-white style ever, that the kilns zealously copied in his own period. The underglaze-blue decorated inner vase is painted with a composite flower scroll as can be seen on many early Ming (1368-1644) vessels, for example, around the body of a ewer from the Qing court collection in the Palace Museum, Beijing (The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red, Shanghai, 2000, vol. 1, pl. 119; fig. 3); while a contemporary version of that design is exemplified by a flower-decorated blue-and-white vase of Qianlong mark and period, also from the Qing court collection (ibid., vol. 3, pl. 136).
The formal designs painted around the shoulder, on a yellow diaper ground, however, have a very different origin. The Qianlong Emperor assembled a large number of Jesuit craftsmen at his court, as his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722), had done, who exerted a conspicuous influence on the arts and crafts of his reign. The curled feathery fronds incorporated into the decoration of this vase are strongly indebted to the Western Rococo style that flourished during the reign of King Louis XV (r. 1715-1774) of France. Rocaille elements, named after decoratively carved rockwork in gardens and responsible for the term Rococo, became highly popular in France in the 1730s and later throughout Europe for interior design as well as silver and porcelain decoration. The term appears first on a screen design that typically combines shell motifs and foliate arabesques by the French artist Francois Boucher, a leading style maker of the first half of the 18th century, who’s influence extended also to the imperial porcelain workshops in Beijing. The decorative leaf motifs, often identified as acanthus leaves, seen on the present vase may have been directly inspired by designs by Alexis Peyrotte, 1699-1769, a French decorator and painter, who decorated royal apartments at Versailles, at the palace of Fontainebleau and the Chateau de Marly, and was renowned for his Chinoiserie style. An etching by Peyrotte of an acanthus-leaf design element created in 1740 and thus nearly contemporary with this vase, is particularly close to the motifs here used on the shoulder (fig. 4, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum).
While rocaille elements were typically, however, used in asymmetric compositions, they are here assembled with pearl strings and purely Chinese motifs such as the double fish, ‘good luck’ talismans, ruyi lappets and musical stones, to a formal symmetric ‘necklace’ gracing the neck of the vase, the pearls depicted with reflecting highlights to render them three-dimensional, the pendent lappets shaded in tones of grisaille.
In 1743, Tang Ying submitted a memorial to the Qianlong Emperor recording his presentation to the court of a total of nine jiazeng linglong (‘layered openwork’) and jiao tai (‘interlocking’) vases of innovative design (Liao Pao Show [Liao Baoxiu], Huali cai ci: Qianlong yangcai/Stunning Decorative Porcelains from the Ch’ien-lung Reign, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2008, pp. 27f.). He states that he did not dare to create larger numbers, since they are so expensive to make; yet he would later, if accepted, make them in pairs. The Emperor replied that he ought to make pairs for those that stand alone, but that indeed he should keep numbers low and only to submit them for special occasions. This sequential production of pairs may explain why the present vase and its pair, are differently marked.
The pair to this vase, today in a private collection, was offered at Bainbridge’s auction house, Ruislip, Middlesex, 11th November 2010, lot 800, and made international headlines when it was hammered down at the world record price of £ 43 million (£ 51.6 million with commission). The sale was, however, rescinded and the vase was sold two years later by Bonhams via private treaty. That vase was then believed to be unique. It is identical to the present piece except for its reign mark, which is inscribed in the more common underglaze-blue seal characters.
On our vase, the reign mark is inscribed in a highly unusual form, as a six-character blue enamel mark enclosed in a double square. Blue enamel marks on yangcai generally are composed of four characters only, similarly enclosed in a double square. Although extremely rare, the present mark is not unique, but is also found, equally painted in blue enamel on a turquoise enamelled base, for example, on a pair of vases painted with boys, one in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and one in the Palace Museum, Beijing (see Qing gongzhong falangcai ci tezhan/Special Exhibition of Ch’ing Dynasty Enamelled Porcelains of the Imperial Ateliers, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1992, cat. no. 146; and The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 91).
The history of the present vase in the West goes back more than a century, as it was already exhibited for sale in New York at the beginning of the 20th century (figs 5 and 6). It has now been in the collection of the same family for nearly a century. This vase and its pair are unique in design, but a closely related pair of vases is in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, of the same form, with identical ‘Longquan’ openwork design, but lacking the gilding and surrounding four painted landscape medallions without relief carving, and with floral designs on a ruby-red rather than a yellow ground (see Liao Pao Show, op.cit., cat. no. 69, where one of the vases is illustrated). This pair is known to have been on display in the Shouhuangdian (‘Hall of Imperial Longevity’), a building complex on the north side of Jingshan (‘Coal Hill’), north of the Forbidden City and aligned with its central axis, where the emperors performed ancestral rites (see also The All Complete Qianlong: The Aesthetic Tastes of the Qing Emperor Gaozong, Taipei, 2013, pl. II-3.32, where the same vase is illustrated again; fig. 7).
The National Palace Museum also owns three pear-shaped vases with similar ‘Longquan’ openwork with gilding, also combined with formal designs on a puce sgraffiato ground, a pair originally on display in the Duanningdian, and a single one in the Yangxindian inside the Forbidden City (one of the former illustrated in Liao Pao Show, op.cit., cat. no. 68).
With its cornucopia of colours, motifs, styles and techniques, this vessel seems tailor-made for the Qianlong Emperor’s taste. With its references to archaic ritual bronzes, a philosophy developed in the Bronze Age, Northern Song painting, Southern Song ceramics, and Ming porcelain, this vase endorsed the Manchu dynasty’s rule as being firmly anchored in China’s cultural tradition and on a par with its glorious past. With its adaptation of Western rocaille motifs, it documented this Emperor’s interest in progress and openness to ideas from abroad, which the Kangxi Emperor had initiated. And with its auspicious motifs, without which imperial porcelain design would have been unthinkable since the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-1735), it honoured his father’s inclinations.
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