Details & Cataloguing

Important Chinese Art: The Collection of a Parisian Connoisseur, Part II

Hong Kong



based on a Middle Eastern metalwork prototype, the body consisting of two domed sections, painted on one side in rich cobalt-blue with linked ruyi heads overlapping petal lappets interspersed with trefoil flowers, all radiating out from a wheel-shaped medallion, bordered by 'classic scroll' along the edge, the reverse with an eight-pointed lappet starburst with petals alternating with trefoils, radiating out from a central ying-yang medallion, all enclosed by a chevron border, supported on a tall bulbous neck collared by a composite floral scroll band, and flanked by a pair of arched handles rising from the waisted neck and terminating at the shoulders with a broad floral tab, supported on a rectangular footring, the mouth inscribed with a six-character horizontal mark

26 cm., 10 1/4 in.
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Acquired in the South of France, 1986.

Catalogue Note

A Xuande Blue and White Moon Flask
By Regina Krahl

This blue and white moon flask shows one of the classic early Ming designs from China's imperial porcelain kilns at Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, a design that appears to have been equally popular with the Chinese rulers in Beijing as with foreign royalty. It belongs to a group of vessels which derived their inspiration from abroad and both in shape and decoration represented a new departure for Chinese porcelain. Flasks of this model are known from the Yongle and Xuande periods, but the design did not survive beyond the Xuande reign. Form and decoration underwent various adjustments during these two or three decades, and the present piece represents the last and most mature version characteristic of the Xuande period.

The typical unmarked Yongle version has a more elongated neck, the body is larger in relation to the neck, and the foot of oval outline. Both sides of the vessel are generally painted with the same rosette. In the Xuande reign the proportions were significantly modified and improved. The new form, seen on the present piece, is much more compact, with a pronounced bulbous neck that provides a harmonious counterbalance to the circular body. The typical version of this Xuande shape is inscribed with a reign mark, has a rectangular foot and two different rosettes on either side, like the vase here offered. Since styles rarely change abruptly with a change of ruler, however, many variations exist, with the 'Yongle shape' continuing into the Xuande period, sometimes inscribed with the reign mark, sometimes painted with two different rosettes, and sometimes with a square foot; the 'Xuande shape' on the other hand can be unmarked and occasionally comes with the oval foot characteristic of the Yongle specimens.

Like other shapes introduced in the early Ming period, the present form appears to derive from Near or Middle Eastern prototypes, in this case perhaps flasks of pottery or metalwork, although no exact counterpart has so far come to light. Its possible origin is discussed in Margaret Medley, 'Islam and Chinese Porcelain in the 14th and Early 15th Centuries', Bulletin of the Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong, no. 6, 1982-4, where a Xuande-marked flask in the Percival David Foundation is illustrated, fig. 11; and in John Alexander Pope, 'An Early Ming Porcelain in Muslim Style', Aus der Welt der Islamischen Kunst. Festschrift für Ernst Kühnel, Berlin, 1959, where another blue-and-white flask is published, pl. 3B, together with a large inlaid brass canteen with similar strap handles and 'garlic' mouth, pl. 1B, the latter from the Eumorfopoulos collection, sold in our London rooms, 5th June 1940, lot 72, and now in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The star-shaped rosettes on both sides – one vaguely flower-shaped, with a yinyang symbol in the centre, the other dissolved into complex interlaced strap work – are composed in a geometric manner that seems designed to discourage any potential evocation of naturalistic imagery. Both its formality and abstraction are highly unusual in a Chinese context and are probably also due to Middle Eastern inspiration. While the same can be said for the enclosing chevron and classic scroll borders, the flower-scroll band at the neck and the small floral sprigs at the handles on the other hand are in tune with the traditional Chinese design repertoire, even though the pretty combination of delicate asters and carnations is rather rare. It admirably serves to mellow the rigidity of the overall design.

Related geometric decoration is in the early Ming period is also found on other blue-and-white porcelains from the imperial kilns, particularly in the interior or around the exterior of bowls: four such bowls of the Yongle period in the Palace Museum, Beijing, are illustrated in Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2002, vol. 1, pls 61-4.

Similar flasks are known from many important collections: the waste heaps of the Jingdezhen imperial kilns have brought to light an early Yongle, a late Yongle and a Xuande example, all of which are currently exhibited in the Shihua Art Museum, Shanghai, : all three show the elongated Yongle shape, the first is plain white piece without a foot, the second the archetypal Yongle version in blue-and-white (fig. 1) with an oval foot and the same design on both sides, and the last is again blue-and-white, but with a rectangular foot and a Xuande reign mark; see Zhao Yueting (ed.), Huangdi de ciqi. Jingdezhen chutu 'Ming san dai' guanyao ciqi zhenpin huicui [Porcelains of the emperors. Compilation of imperial porcelain treasures of 'the three Ming reigns' excavated at Jingdezhen], Shanghai, 2010, pls 19, 23 and 68. The more compact form characteristic of the Xuande period, as seen on the present example, does not appear to have been found at Jingdezhen.

For other flasks of the present form and design see one from the Riesco collection illustrated in Sir Harry Garner, Oriental Blue and White, London, 1954, pl. 31; one from the collection of Mrs I.J. Watt sold at Sotheby's London, 19th June 1984, lot 250, and now in the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, illustrated in Idemitsu Bijutsukan zōhin zuroku: Chūgoku tōji/Chinese Ceramics in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1987; one from the collections of Major L.F. Hay, sold in our London rooms, 16th June 1939, lot 86, and later in the collections of Mr and Mrs R.H.R. Palmer and The Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong; one from the collection of a French Ambassador to China and later the J. Woodthorpe collection, included in the Oriental Ceramic Society exhibition Chinese Blue and White Porcelain, London, 1953, cat. no. 76; one from the collection of Edward T. Chow, included in the exhibition of Blue-Decorated Porcelain of the Ming Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum, Philadelphia, 1949, cat. no. 69, illustrated in Cécile and Michel Beurdeley, La céramique chinoise, Fribourg, 1974, col. pl. 57, and sold in these rooms 25th November 1980, lot 7.

Unmarked and Xuande-marked flasks of both forms, formerly in the Chinese court collection, are now in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, see the exhibition catalogues Mingdai chunian ciqi tezhan mulu/Catalogue of a Special Exhibition of Early Ming Period Porcelain, Taipei, 1982, nos 8 and 9; and Mingdai Xuande guanyao jinghua tezhan tulu/Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, nos 21 and 22(fig. 2). The Palace Museum, Beijing, owns unusual examples of both shapes, an elongated one bearing a Xuande reign mark, and a compact one without mark, see Geng Baochang, op.cit., pls 84 (fig. 3) and 85. The collection of the Safavid shahs from the Ardabil Shrine, now in Teheran, included two flasks of this compact shape, without reign mark and with an oval foot, see John Alexander Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Washington, D.C., 1956, pl. 55 top right and Misugi Takatoshi, Chinese Porcelain Collections in the Near East: Topkapi and Ardebil, Hong Kong, 1981, vol. III, no. A 83. The collection of the Ottoman sultans in Turkey contained the typical Yongle version, see Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, London, 1986, vol. 2, no. 616.

Important Chinese Art: The Collection of a Parisian Connoisseur, Part II

Hong Kong