SEEKING HEAVEN’S BLESSING
Of imposing size, the brilliantly painted imagery that envelopes the cylindrical body bristles with activity. Exquisitely painted with a continuous narrative, this resplendent animated scene is derived from the famous 16th century novel Fengshen Bang (The Investiture of the Gods). The story describes the downfall of the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC) crumbling under the tyrannical rule of a dissolute and depraved ruler and its conquest by the righteous King Wen of Zhou whose son, King Wu, established the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC). The historical basis for the vividly described conflict is fantastically augmented by an array of immortals, spirits and demons fighting alongside humans vying for supremacy. The events of the 2nd millennium BC clearly established a correlation between the actions of a ruler and divinely granted right to rule. Only a wise and benevolent sovereign could inspire the necessary loyalty from both men and celestial beings in order to be granted the Mandate of Heaven. The historical event responsible for establishing the Mandate of Heaven was of such significance that it attained legendary status. This linkage of meritorious leadership and dynastic power had particular resonance for the Kangxi emperor who was determined to stabilize the empire and legitimize his mandate.
Every aspect of this magnificent vase serves to positively endorse a correlation between the victorious Zhou and newly established Manchu dynasty. The composition ingeniously integrates with the columnar form as the closely gathered assemblage of the victorious Zhou army in staggered formation encounters a meager representation of its enemy in the form of two Shang princes bowing in deference. The overwhelming pictorial imbalance between the opposing forces reinforces the legitimacy of the Zhou triumph. The clever configuration is immeasurably strengthened by the virtuosity of the painting. An array of vivid green and blue enamels, balanced by warm yellow and iron-red tones is considerably enriched with black and gilt enamels masterfully applied for definition and depth. Each figure and animal is individualized with differing coloration, accoutrements or apparel and a captivating range of demeanor registered on the many and varied visages. Several of the key figures, both historical and mythological, can be identified by distinctive features or attributes.
Vases of similar impressive dimension of this superlative quality and brilliantly painted with densely populated figural scenes are exceptionally rare. There appears to be only one other vase that closely compares with the present example, in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco and illustrated in R. L. d'Argencé Chinese Ceramics in the Avery Brundage Collection, San Francisco, 1967, pl. 68 and again by He Li, Chinese Ceramics A New Comprehensive Survey, New York, 1996, pl. 646 (fig. 1). The vase features a large official gathering as the Song dynasty Zhenzong emperor bestows an honorary seal on the Generals of the Yang family. The meticulously rendered figures (of which there are an impressive 56) are painted with the same consummate skill that distinguishes the present example.
Other vases of equivalent dimension and finely enameled with figural scenes include two from the John L. Severence Collection, donated to the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1936 and sold at Christie’s New York 21st September 2000, lot 324 with a scene depicting a large official gathering, and lot 322 depicting an elaborate festival honoring the Queen of the West, Xiwangmu, now in the Jie Rui Tang Collection. Other similar examples with numerous figures include one sold in our London rooms, 7th November 2007, lot 329; one depicting The Tale of Kunyang City in the Taft Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio illustrated in As You Wish, Symbol and Meaning on Chinese Porcelains from the Taft Museum, China Institute Gallery, New York, 1994, fig. 3, p. 13; three from the Benjamin Altman Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, acquisition nos. 14.40.85, 14.40. 83, 14.40.331; and another from the collection of J. Goldschmidt illustrated in Ausstellung Chinesischer Kunst, Berlin, 1929, cat. no. 892. Additionally two further examples of famille-verte rouleau vases of similar size are illustrated in R. L. Hobson, The Leonard Gow Collection of Chinese Porcelain, London, 1931, pls. XXV depicting a dragon boat festival scene and XLVIIIa painted with the 'Three Star Gods'.
Related comparable large vases but more summarily painted with shaped panels enclosing beasts and flowers reserved on a stippled ground include one illustrated in Walter Bondy, K'ang-hsi, Munich, 1923, pp. 136 and 140 and two from Collection of John D. Rockefeller and the Metropolitan Museum of Art sold at Christie’s New York 15th September 2016, lots 870 and 871.
It appears few examples of these important large scale vases are in Chinese museum collections. A blue and white rouleau vase of the same height painted with a figural scene is in the Palace Museum, Beijing and illustrated in Chen Runmin, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang Qingdai ciqi lei xuan [Qing porcelains from the Palace Museum Collection Selected by Type], vol. 1: Qing Shunzhi Kangxi chao qinghua ci [Blue-and-white porcelain of the Shunzhi and Kangxi reigns of the Qing], Beijing, 2005, pl. 293. Another blue and white vase of the same impressive dimensions but painted with a landscape is in the Shanghai Museum and illustrated in Kangxi Porcelain Wares from the Shanghai Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1998, pl. 52. In describing the vase, Lu Minghua comments particularly on both the technical skill required to model such large pieces and the superlative quality of the painting.
Provenance from Tonying & Co. is notable. The company was founded in 1902 by Zhang Renjie (1877-1950) who was an attaché of the Qing government to Paris. Through favorable government connections Zhang enjoyed privileged access to art collections of the nobility as well as the imperial family. Zhang emigrated from China in 1939, living first in Europe and then in New York. From at least 1925 the firm held several sales through the American Art Associates in New York, which in 1938 was taken over by Parke-Bernet Galleries who continued to hold auctions for Tonying through the 1950s. For further reading on the subject see Roy Davids and Dominic Jellinek, Provenance: Collectors, Dealers & Scholars in the Field of Chinese Ceramics in Britain & America, Great Haseley, 2011, pp 421-422.
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