A MAGNIFICENT CARVED CELADON, UNDERGLAZE-BLUE AND FAMILLE-ROSE DECORATED 'BOYS' VASE SEAL MARK AND PERIOD OF QIANLONG
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This vase is a characteristic imperial work of art made during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-95), who was fascinated with the baroque style and rich and lavish decoration. It was a period when every aspect of a vessel was precisely calculated and planned, down to minute detail, but at the same time, every object was regarded as a work of art in its entirety. The present vase is a particularly fine example and it is extremely rare to find a major vessel such as this piece with its elegant and harmonious combination of the octagonal form inspired by archaic bronze wares and the celadon glaze with relief design, famille-rose panels, underglaze-blue painting, and gilding. No similar object appears to be recorded worldwide.
The famille-rose motifs of children playing with fireworks, quails (homophonous to peace), lanterns, halberd and ruyi are lively painted in four panels and convey a carefree, auspicious and festive atmosphere. According to an imperial edict by the Qianlong Emperor in the 8th year of his reign (1743), specific motifs should be used for porcelain on occasion of different festivals in accordance with Chinese conventions, such as mugwort leaf for the Dragon Boat Festival, orange osmanthus for the Mid-Autumn Festival etc. The scenes of fireworks and lanterns etc. depicted on this vase imply that the porcelain might have been made for the court to celebrate festive occasions. A Qianlong vase painted in falangcai enamels with very similar motifs on a yellow ground is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Porcelains with Cloisonné Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 27 (fig. 1). However, this piece has only three panels and lacks the lovely scene of fireworks, and each of its panels shows only two kids against a plain white background without trees, rocks, lawns and railings, thus appearing much less realistic and joyous than the painting on the present vase. According to the scholars from the Palace Museum, Beijing, the motifs of children at play on some Qianlong enamelled porcelains are based on paintings of the famous court painter Jin Tingbiao of the same period, ibid., pl. 27. Compare a painting by Jin Tingbiao inscribed with a poem by the Qianlong Emperor, with the lines “With a pristine life-loving heart of the children, who needs the preaching of Zhou Dunyi [Song dynasty neo-Confucian philosopher, 1017-73]” (fig. 2).
The two vases also differ in details of their motifs: on the present piece, for example, a boy is holding a flower vessel in the form of a blue-and-white moonflask and is accompanying children with lanterns; in another panel, hanging on the halberd (ji, homophonous to auspicious) is a chime (qing, homophonous to celebration), which together forms the pun Ji Qing You Yu (Abundance of Auspiciousness and Celebrations). By comparison, the Beijing Palace Museum vase depicts a flower bottle in ge ware crackled glaze and is held by a boy watching quails; and hanging on the halberd is a double-fish emblem (yu), which together symbolises the same pun.
The vase features a perfect celadon glaze and relief design which is pleasing not only to the eyes but also attractive to touch. Ceramics with celadon glazes never lost their appeal, from the very first moment they began to be produced, almost four thousand years ago. Remarkably, over this long period ever new ways could be found to set in scene the wonderful glaze colour. Outstanding among celadon porcelains is the present glaze tone. A clear watery blue-green, which is difficult to reach, as it requires pure reduction firing, was achieved on some of the celebrated wares from the Longquan kilns of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). Thereafter, the technique appears to have been lost, as it is not known from celadon wares of the Yuan (1279-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) periods. In the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) it was revived again on some of the finest porcelains of the Yongzheng reign (1723-35), but remains rare, is generally restricted to smaller vessels, and seldom found on pieces with relief-carved decoration. On the fine white porcelain body produced at Jingdezhen the blue-green takes on an even more brilliant, translucent tone than it did on the heavier, less refined body available at Longquan in Zhejiang. On this Qianlong vase a distinct contrast between the celadon glaze and the relief design has been achieved. While the glaze is generously applied, the relief stands out due to the thinner layer of glaze over it. A monochrome jar with a similar celadon glaze and relief dragon design from the collections of Lord Loch of Drylaw (1827-1900), Alfred Morrison (1821-97) at Fonthill House, The Rt. Hon The Lord of Margadale of Islay, T.D., and the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo, illustrated in Sotheby’s Hong Kong – Twenty Years, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 310, and Kanzō meihinsen [Selected masterpieces from the museum], vol. 2, Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo, 1996, cat. no. 103, was sold at Christie’s London, 18th October 1971, lot 51, in these rooms, 17th May 1988, lot 75 and 8th October 2014, lot 3901.
The relief of chime and fish on the present vase again forms the pun Ji Qing You Yu. The pairing of these two elements seems much rarer than the combination of bat (fu, homophonous to happiness) and chime, although it can be found on three Qianlong famille-rose vases in the National Palace Museum, Taipei: a pair illustrated in Liao Pao Show, Huali cai ci: Qianlong yangcai/ Stunning Decorative Porcelains from the Ch’ien-lung Reign, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2008, pl. 31; and one in Qianlong huangdi de wenhua daye /Emperor Ch’ien-lung’s Grand Cultural Enterprise, Taipei, 2002, pl. V-25. A Qianlong vase from a Kyoto collection with similar celadon glaze all over the body and comparable reliefs of bat and double fish, was sold in these rooms, 8th October 2013, lot. 202.
It is rare for celadon-glazed porcelain to have panels of famille-rose paintings. Some Qianlong examples are known but they very rarely show the motif of children at play. A moon flask at the Umezawa Kinenkan, Tokyo, is painted with two children playing with fireworks or a halberd in two panels. A moon flask with famille-rose flower panels on a celadon ground from the collection of Alfred Morrison (1821-1897) at Fonthill House was sold at Christie’s London, 18th October 1971, lot 93, later entered the collection of the J.T. Tai Foundation and was sold in these rooms 21st May 1985, lot 36, and again, 1st November 1999, lot 397. A lobed vase with flower paintings was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 1st October 1991, lot 786, and again in our New York rooms, 20th March 2007, lot 818.
The present vase, however, differs from these examples in that its famille-rose panels are reserved on a blue-and-white rather than a celadon-glazed ground, and it seems to be the only known example to feature such a combination of celadon glaze with famille-rose panels on a ground of underglaze-blue painting, and it is in fact very rare to find any celadon-glazed porcelain with such prominent underglaze-blue painting. Two celadon-glazed moon flasks, sold in our New York rooms, 22nd March 2001, lot 121, and at Christie’s Hong Kong, 26th April 1999, lot 545, have underglaze-blue painting, but only in less pronounced parts of neck, foot and sides.
Another innovation of the present vase lies in its gilding. Gilded decoration on Qing imperial porcelain is often used as a design in itself, but rarely to outline underglaze-blue painting like on the present vase. The glorious gilding matches the blue painting extremely well and creates a remarkable decorative effect. Another rare example can be seen on a Qianlong flower perfumer with underglaze-blue butterfly medallion and overglaze gilding of outlines and details, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Miscellaneous Enamelled Porcelains and Plain Tricoloured Porcelains, Shanghai, 2009, pl. 143. Such gilding is reminiscent of the gilt-metal wires on cloisonné work, or the doucai porcelain style characterised by underglaze-blue outlines for the overglaze colours. The Qianlong Emperor was particularly fond of cloisonné work which he revived on a grand scale after a period of disregard under the Yongzheng Emperor. He had it imitated in porcelain, where the wires separating the cloisons of different enamels were mirrored by finely-painted golden lines.
In addition to the lavish decoration, the form of the vase is also very rare, although it is reminiscent of archaic bronze vessels, which often supplied models for Qianlong porcelain. Two Qianlong vases are octagonal like the present vase but differ in profile, see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (III), Shanghai, 2000, pl. 133; and The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Porcelains with Cloisonné Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 131. For hexagonal vases of the same profile as the present piece see a Qianlong famille-rose example, illustrated ibid., pl. 88; and a Yongzheng vase with guan ware glaze in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Monochrome Porcelain, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 204. The golden mark of this vase is also very rare for Qianlong porcelain, although examples are known, see a famille-rose gourd form vase in Zhou Lili, Collection from the Shanghai Museum: Qing Dynasty Imperial Porcelain from the Yongzheng to Xuantong Period, Shanghai, 2014, pl. 5-39.
Although the individual elements of both shape and decoration of this vase are all characteristic of this reign, close counterparts are difficult to find, since the Qianlong potters were masters at combining their many style elements in myriad ways to create ever new objects. The present vase appears to be unique. Comparable in terms of combining multiple styles of decoration on one piece is the famous but much larger porcelain vase in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Porcelains with Cloisonné Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Hong Kong 1999, pl. 163, and its counterpart, sold at Skinner Auctioneers, Boston, 17th September 2014, lot 96. These monumental Qianlong vases feature a variety of additional styles and by comparison the present vase has a more clearly defined composition and a harmonious and balanced use of the different techniques.