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well potted with deep rounded sides rising to an everted rim supported on a tall hollow foot slightly flaring at the base, the interior inscribed in the centre in underglaze blue with a six-character reign mark in a double ring, the sides decorated in anhua ('hidden decoration') with a pair of striding dragons both moving in a counter-clockwise direction, the exterior painted in deep cobalt blue with a pair of sinuous five-clawed dragons in mutual pursuit, one with its head turned back, the other with its head looking forward, above a band of jagged rocks and reserved against a ground of pale blue pencilled, turbulent waves, the stem similarly decorated with five jagged rocks rising from the base set against a pale blue wave ground
Xuande: Majestic Dragon in Calm Waters
This exquisite dragon design, with deep blue animals emerging from watery-blue waves, is one of the most successful and pleasing of the many different dragon designs devised for the court at the Jingdezhen imperial kilns. The motif of dragons among waves lends itself to this colouration, as the dragon - like water - is associated with the colour blue (qing in Chinese). Versions with this distinct shading, which are probably among the most ambitious, were achieved only in the Xuande reign (AD 1426-35). The Xuande period is notable for a change in painting style from the bold and often large-scale paintings of the Yongle reign (AD 1403-24) to a delicate painting manner executed with a fine brush.
To create shading with the cobalt-blue pigment, like with black ink in painting on silk or paper, had been attempted since the Yuan dynasty (AD 1279-1368); but to achieve such evenness required a cobalt solution of consistent quality and demanded rigorous control of the brush in painting and of the kiln atmosphere in firing. All this may have proven so difficult that it was never again employed in this dramatic way, either before or after the Xuande reign. Even in the Chenghua reign (AD 1465-87), when similar designs were still produced, the distinctive contrast was already lost; see, for example, a bowl of Chenghua mark and period with dragons against waves in the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo, included in the exhibition Imperial Porcelain: Recent Discoveries of Jingdezhen Ware, Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 1995, cat. no. 228 (fig. 1). Nor was this style revived in the Qing dynasty (AD 1644-1911), when so much early Ming porcelain was recreated.
Only three other Xuande stembowls of this exact design and four examples of a close variant are recorded, mostly in museum collections. A very similar piece in the Capital Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Shoudu Bowuguan cang ci xuan [Selection of porcelains from the Capital Museum], Beijing, 1991, pl. 101; another in the National Museum of China, Beijing, is published in Zhongguo Guojia Bowuguan guancang wenwu yanjiu congshu / Studies on the Collections of the National Museum of China. Ciqi juan [Porcelain section]: Mingdai [Ming dynasty], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 40; and a third, illustrated in Adrian M. Joseph, Ming Porcelains. Their Origins and Development, London, 1971, pl. 28, was sold twice in these rooms, 24th November 1981, lot 65 and 20th May 1986, lot 15.
A variant of the design has fewer rocks around the foot and a narrow wave border running around the base. A piece of that pattern in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is published in Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2002, vol. II, pl. 159 (fig. 2); one in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, is illustrated in 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. 108; one, apparently lacking the anhua inside, is in the Musée Guimet, Paris, from the Grandidier collection, see Oriental Ceramics: The World's Great Collections, Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, 1980-82, vol. VII, col. pl. 18; and another, sold twice in these rooms, 28th April 1992, lot 32, and 9th October 2007, lot 1552, is now on loan to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, from the Xiling collection, illustrated in Xiling Collection, n.p., 2011, cat. no. 15 and on the dust jacket.
Stembowls with deep blue dragons on pale blue waves were also made with five or nine smaller animals instead of one large pair; for the former see a piece in the British Museum, London, in Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, no. 4:14; and one in Taiwan included in the Xuande exhibition 1998, op.cit., cat. no. 109; for the latter, a piece in Toronto in Royal Ontario Museum. The T.T. Tsui Galleries of Chinese Art, Toronto, 1996, pl. 104.
A similar effect, using ultra-pale waves as a backdrop, was also tried on other shapes and designs; a dish with two similar blue dragons among waves on the outside, and a single blue and two anhua dragons inside in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, (fig. 3) was also included in the Xuande exhibition 1998, op.cit., cat. no. 187, together with a stemcup with fabulous sea creatures among pale waves, cat. no. 74, both of Xuande mark and period. Fragmentary stemcups with fabulous sea creatures, and bowls with fish among water plants, both with pale wave backgrounds, have also been excavated from the kiln site at Jingdezhen and included in the exhibition Jingdezhen chutu Ming Xuande guanyao ciqi / Xuande Imperial Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. nos. 51-1 and 102-1.
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