FLOWERS FROM THE TANG DYNSATY: A RARE SANCAI GLAZED COURT LADY
By Baoping Li
The Tang dynasty (618-907) represents one of the most glorious chapters of China’s history when the country was open to, and indeed fascinated by, influences beyond its boundaries. The cosmopolitan nature of the culture is abundantly evident in the ceramic forms and figures commissioned for royal and aristocratic tombs. During the Tang dynasty, the families of the noble, the rich and high officials vied to stage the most spectacular funerals. Objects made with official hierarch to accompany the departed according to their rank, known as mingqi, were paraded through the great metropolitan centers of north China and prominently displayed on platforms before being placed in special niches within the tombs themselves.
The most celebrated of these ceramics are sancai or ‘three-colored’ wares featuring brilliant, low-fired glazes of amber, green and cream. Notable examples of sancai wares have been excavated from many sites in China, such as the tombs of Princess Yongtai and Prince Yide (dated to 706 AD) in Qianxian county, Shaanxi, and well as sites as far afield as the Middle East. Used primarily by nobility and officials, Tang sancai wares were versatile as daily utility wares, religious ceremonial objects, and as funerary goods. The present sculpture exemplifies the best of Tang sancai wares; exquisitely articulated as seen on the sensitive modeling of the face and the detailing of the beaded necklace which is gracefully knotted at the back, the skilled and controlled application of glaze – lead based glazes are notoriously viscous and tend to run – the sleeves, gown, and shawl are monochrome but a resist technique employing all three colors has been used on the jacket giving it a rich, mottled effect.
Amongst Tang dynasty sancai wares, sculptures of women constitute a rare and notable group. Long admired for their beauty and elegance, they also provide a glimpse into the rarefied world of the female elite. During the Tang dynasty women enjoyed an amount of power, privilege and autonomy not seen in any earlier or later Chinese dynasties, as may be implied by Wu Zetian (624-705), China’s only female emperor (690-705). The present sculpture reflects that new found confidence. It is physically imposing, pyramidal in structure, the figure sits upright, alert and comfortable, conveying the poise of privileged women at the time. In addition to relating the heightened role of women at court, the figure’s garments and hairstyle impart the Tang passion for foreign styles.
The Tang capital of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an, Shaanxi) was the largest city in the world, boasting some two million inhabitants many of whom came from such disparate places as Africa, Rome, Central Asia, India, and Japan. The city was the final destination of Silk Road traders and luxury items were much sought after by the wealthy. In fashion, Persian styles were favored. The high waist, tight sleeves, loose, flowing gowns and décolleté (a very non-Confucian feature) found on the present sculpture were all features of this foreign inspired style. The elaborate coiffure is one of many different types that enjoyed popularity with amusing names such as yun ji (resembling clouds), luo ji (resembling a spiraling shell) and the present figure with its hudie ji (resembling wings of a butterfly). Paintings of beauties are a highlight of the Tang dynasty, for example see the two standing ladies holding a flower and with attire and headdress comparable to the present figure (fig. 1), painted in a tomb in Fuping, Shaanxi, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Murals Unearthed in China, Beijing, 2012, vol. 6, part II, pl. 232.
Of the few known examples similar to the present sculpture, slender in proportion, seated and sancai-glazed, the figures are depicted holding various objects, the most common being either a bird or a long-stemmed flower. Figures grasping a flower seem to be of two types; one flower with radiating petals and the other more rare type, as seen on the present example, with the large, stylized scrolling, leafy bloom. A well-modeled figure in the Matsuoka Art Museum, Tokyo, (fig. 2), smaller in size and with a different hairstyle but holding a similar flower is illustrated in Mayuyama, Seventy Years, vol. I, Tokyo, 1976, pl. 191 and again in Selected Masterpieces of the Matsuoka Museum of Art, Tokyo, 1975, pl. 23. A closely related seated figure with a Phoenix headdress in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston is illustrated in The Charles B. Hoyt Collection in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, 1964, pl. 87. In terms of sculptural quality, the figure closest to the present example is in the Rietberg Museum, Zurich (fig. 3) and illustrated in Helmut Brinker and Eberhard Fischer, Treasures from the Rietberg Museum, The Asia Society, New York, 1980, no. 41 with color illus. p. 75. For a related figure of a seated lady with a long stemmed -blossom of radiating petals and similar coiffure, from the celebrated collection of Dr. T.T. Tsui see Art Treasures form Shanghai and Hong Kong, The university of Hong Kong, 1996, cat no. 26 and another but, with the legs differently positioned, also from the collection of T. T. Tsui, was sold Christie’s New York, 26th March 2003, lot 201. A sancai -glazed seated lady, formerly in the Anthony Hardy collection, now in the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art, Washington D. C (fig. 4) is a good related example of the type holding a bird.
It is yet to ascertain the place of manufacture for these figures because there were a few kilns making sancai objects, including some that are yet to be discovered. A misfired sancai-glazed lady, seated and holding a duck-form vessel, was discovered at the Liquanfang kilnsite in Chang’an, illustrated in Lu Junmao & Zhang Guozhu, Fragmentary Ceramics of Ancient Xi’an, Xi’an, 2003, p. 8, which is of similar form to a sancai figure unearthed from the tomb of Li Du and his wife in Changzhi, Shanxi, dated to AD 710, illustrated in Hsie Mingliang, Zhongguo gudai qianyoutao de shijie [The world of lead-glazed objects from ancient China: from the Warring States to Tang], Taipei, 2014, fig. 5.28. Gongxian (Gongyi) in Henan, near Luoyang the East Capital of the Tang, seems another major supplier of sancai figures, even though finds to date from this kilnsite are primarily sancai vessels, see Hao Hongxing, Ren Xiangkun, Tang sancai from Gongyi: pottery figures, Art & Collection, No. 280, January 2016, pp. 106-117. In any case, the present figure provides valuable insight into the production and trade of a most beautiful and significant type of Chinese ceramics, see discussions in Hitoshi Kobayashi, Chugoku Nanbokucho Zui To toyo no kenkyu [Researches on Chinese ceramic figures from the Southern and Northern Dynasties and Sui-Tang period ], Kyoto, 2015, pp. 339-402.
In addition to its aesthetic and academic merits, the sculpture has an extraordinary provenance. The figure was acquired in the 1940s by Captain Sergius N. Ferris Luboshez (1894-1984), a retired officer in the United States Navy, who was sent by the State Department to China as Central Field Commissioner (fig. 5). Based in Shanghai, he was quickly enamored with the culture, the people and the art and in his four years there acquired over one hundred pieces. When the collection was offered for sale at Sotheby Parke Bernet, an article in the New York Times noted “The finest ceramic offering in the Luboshez collection is a Tang tomb figure of a serene and graceful court lady…”, which also reported that Captain Luboshez said that he admired the figure of the ‘court lady’ at the home of a collector and had to wait for two or three years before the owner was ready to relinquish it. (Rita Reif, “Antique View; A Captain’s Store of Chinese Riches”, The New York Times, November 14, 1982)
The figure then passed into the hands of another great collector, C.C. Wang (1907-2003) who purchased the figure from the famous Chinese art dealer, Giuseppe Eskenazi. C.C. Wang is considered to have built one of the finest collections of Chinese old master paintings in the 20th century, many of which were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Irene and Earl Morse (1908-1988) were the next owners. From 1947, when he acquired his first piece, to his death in 1988, Earl Morse and his wife amassed an extensive collection. Two exhibitions of their art were held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; one of Ming and Qing dynasty paintings, In Pursuit and Antiquity, 1970 and another Spirit and Ritual, The Morse Collection of Ancient Chinese Art, 1982. Sotheby’s sold three lots from the Morse Collection in 1988, one of which is the present lot and the winning bid came from another great collector; the philanthropist and businessman A. Alfred Taubman.