The carver’s decision to let the nature of the boulder inform the subject matter and the compositional structure, is entirely in keeping with the Qianlong Emperor’s belief that lapidary works of art should be made in accordance with the characteristics of the medium. The emperor famously praised a jade carving known as A Spring Morning in the City along the River because the artisan ‘designed the piece according to its nature and measurement, fully using its concave and convex surfaces for curves and determining the top and bottom according to the shape of the raw stone’ (Qing Gaozong yuzhi shiwen quanji / Complete Works of Poetry of Emperor Gaozong of the Qing Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1976, vol. 6, juan 86, p. 20). The same approach to harmonizing the manmade imagery with the raw stone can be seen on the present boulder.
The Qianlong Emperor described this aesthetic integration of natural and artistic elements in jade carving as being poetic, not decorative, which is the same standard he applied to Song dynasty paintings. Indeed, the present image of Laozi riding a buffalo is depicted on a hanging scroll by the Song dynasty master Zhao Buzhi (1053-1110) Laozi Riding an Ox, which was in the collection of the Qing Court (now in the National Palace Museum, Taipei) and was inscribed with a poem by the Qianlong Emperor in 1751 (fig. 1). The very same imperial poem appears on the present boulder, incised on the cliff above the traveling sage.
The incorporation of the subject matter and poem from Zhao Buzhi’s painting into the present boulder is consistent with imperial workshop practices during the Qianlong Emperor’s reign. The Emperor encouraged artisans to think across media, and in doing so, to expand their own capabilities as well as the properties of an artwork by reimagining the object in a new medium. He was, in fact, personally involved in the conversion of classical paintings into three dimensional images carved in jade boulders, as evidenced by masterpieces such as the renowned celadon jade boulder in the Palace Museum, Beijing titled An Illustration of Da Yu Regulating the Water System, which is modeled after Song dynasty paintings of the subject and is inscribed with a 322-character poem by the emperor himself (see Gugong bowuyuan cang wenwu zhenpin quanji: yuqi (xia) / The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Jadeware (III), Hong Kong, 1995, cat. no. 75). Elsewhere, the Emperor lauded jade mountains carved with pictorial scenes inspired by classical paintings for the carved version’s ability to enliven the subject by bringing it from one plane into many, for making the image more visually enjoyable in the round, and for the durability that stone offers against the ravages of time and fire.
The latter factor – the jade’s resistance to fire – can be especially appreciated in the present boulder. The ‘chicken bone’ coloration may have been produced by deliberately heating the nephrite to create the opaque ivory and black tones. These effects could also have come about by accidental exposure to fire. The collection of the Palace Museum, for instance, contains numerous jades that were burnt in fires that erupted at the palace over the years.
Qianlong period boulders that integrate pictorial elements from Song dynasty paintings, and bear an inscription by the emperor include An Illustration of Da Yu Regulating the Water System, cited above; a tall celadon jade boulder titled Travelers among Mountains in Autumn, also in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, and illustrated in ibid., cat. no. 77; a celadon and brown jade boulder modeled on Waterfall and Soughing Pine by the Ming dynasty painter Wen Zhenming (1470-1559), now in the collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and published in Michael Knight et al., Later Chinese Jades: Ming Dynasty to Early Twentieth Century, from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, 2007, pl. 356; and a massive pale celadon jade mountain inspired by The Gathering of Scholars at the Lanting Pavilion, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (coll. no. 92.103.13), published in Jades of the T. B. Waler Collection at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota: A Catalog on the Collection including a Brief Story on Jade, Minneapolis, 1945, pl. X, no. 59.
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