The distinctive style of this charming vase, with its freely painted designs in black on white and with details incised and combed through the black down to the white slip, is characteristic of the Cizhou type site at Guantai in Ci county, Hebei province. Although so-called ‘Cizhou’ wares with black painted designs on a white ground became so popular from the Jin dynasty (1115-1234) onwards that they were made by many different kilns of north China, other manufactories did not develop a style nearly as accomplished. The swiftly drawn black motifs immediately call to mind ink paintings, and the white combed details evoke the ‘flying white’ method of brushwork much used in calligraphy, created by a brush that runs out of ink, whose hairs separate and cause white streaks to appear in a black stroke.
Many similarly decorated vessels and fragments have been recovered from the Guantai kiln site, see Guantai Cizhou yaozhi/The Cizhou Kiln Site at Guantai, Beijing, 1997, pls XIII, no. 3 (centre) for a particularly close fragment, and others col. pls IX, no. 2 and XI, no. 1 right; and pl. XXIII, nos 1 and 2, and XXVIII, no. 4; and pp. 123-129, figs 52, 53 and 56; for vases of related form see pl. XXII, no. 6 and p. 123, fig. 52.
A vase of very similar form and design in the Tokyo National Museum is included in the Illustrated Catalogues of Tokyo National Museum. Chinese Ceramics I, Tokyo, 1988, no. 567, together with one decorated with lotus bouquets and butterflies, no. 566; a similar vase with a differently shaped rim, in the Kyusei Hakone Art Museum, Hakone, was included in the exhibition Freedom of Clay and Brush through Seven Centuries in Northern China, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, 1980, cat. no. 87 and illustrated on the cover; one without butterflies in the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, ibid., cat. no. 88; another without butterflies in the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo, is illustrated in Idemitsu Bijutsukan zōhin zuroku. Chūgoku tōji/Chinese Ceramics in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1987, pl. 512; and examples with and without butterflies were sold at Christie’s New York, 19th September 1996, lot 254, and 23rd March 1995, lot 348, the latter again in our New York rooms, 21st September 2006, lot 97. Of the related examples, it is important to note not only the similarities but also the subtle differences that denote the individuality of each piece, such as the quality of the carving, the proportions of the blossoms and leaves and the rendering of the butterflies.