The present vase represents one of the most graceful and successful reinterpretation of the bronze gu shape and epitomises the antiquarian nature that characterises jade carvings of this period. An erudite scholar and passionate collector of antiques, the Qianlong Emperor’s love for the past was grounded in his admiration for Chinese history and influenced by Confucian philosophy, which emphasised the study of history in the pursuit of virtue. The Qianlong Emperor actively influenced jade production, criticising the ‘vulgar’ style popular in the 18th century as excessively ornate, and urging craftsmen to study antique vessels and adapt them to the jade medium. The Xiqing gujian [Catalogue of Xiqing antiquities], which was compiled by court artists between 1749 and 1755, and comprised line drawings of some 1500 objects in the imperial collection, was circulated among craftsmen who were encouraged to take inspiration from it.
Vases of this elegant form and such restrained decoration are rare. A celadon jade vase of this form but fashioned with four handles, was sold in our London rooms, 27th June 1974, lot 35; a spinach-green jade example with two handles was sold in our London rooms, 11th May 2011, lot 300; and another of larger size, from the Qing court collection and still in Beijing, is illustrated in Compendium of Collections in the Palace Museum. Jade, vol. 10: Qing Dynasty, Beijing, 2011, pl. 80.
Barbed vases are also known carved with taotie masks on the raised mid-section. Compare a vase in the De An Tang collection, included in the exhibition A Romance with Jade, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2004, cat. no. 126; and another from the collection of Major R.W. Cooper, sold twice at Christie’s London in 1963 and 2008, and most recently at Christie’s Hong Kong, 1st December 2010, lot 3059.
The barbed shape of this vase, which combines graceful curves and sharp ridges, was also experimented on vases of stouter and broader proportions, which were inspired by archaic bronze zun. See for example a vase also with animal-head handles, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated op. cit., pl. 49.
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