This elegant vessel, superbly potted and masterfully painted, represents one of those classic Yongle styles, which the world over have become identified with China’s blue and white porcelain per se. In brilliant shades of cobalt blue six sprays of fruits – peach, pomegranate, crabapple, lychee, loquat and longan – are carefully arranged to accentuate the attractive silhouette of the body. A pleasure for the eyes and a delight to the touch, the present piece belongs to a small group of vessels made in the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644), to be prized for centuries.
Vessels with gracefully rounded shoulders and dainty mouths such as the present piece first appeared in the Tang dynasty (618-907) and gained in popularity since the Song period (960-1279). Although originally made as wine containers, vessels of this elegant shape are called meiping or ‘prunus vase’, reflecting a change of function in the later dynasties. In the Yuan (1279-1368) and Ming dynasties, meiping were probably still used primarily as wine vessels, but also began to hold flowers. A court painting of cats at play, attributed to the late Ming dynasty, illustrates a pair of meiping on a table, containing twigs of coral and flanking a purple lobed vase which appears to be a piece of Jun ware.
Meiping were also placed in royal and aristocratic tombs in the Ming dynasty, suggesting that they served an important ritual function. See an underglaze-red covered meiping of the Hongwu period (1368-1398), excavated from the tomb of Princess Ancheng (1384-1443), daughter of the Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-1424), and her husband (d. 1430) in Jiangsu, illustrated in Fujioka Ryoichi & Hasebe Gakuji, eds, Sekai tōji zenshū/Ceramic Art of the World, vol. XIV: Min/Ming Dynasty, Tokyo, 1976, col. pl. 140, together with a Yongle period underglaze-blue covered example painted with peach blossoms and bamboo, unearthed from the tomb of Zhu Youyun, Prince Jing of Yong (1481-1507), son of the Chenghua Emperor (r. 1465-1487), in Shijingshan district, Beijing, pl. 141.
In west and central Asia, meiping vessels appear to have been used as vases: see a detail of Tahmina Comes into Rustam’s Chamber, an illustrated folio dated to circa 1434 from a manuscript of the Shahnama of Firdawsi in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums, depicting a pair of blue and white dragon-decorated meiping holding red flowers, included in Pleasingly Pure and Lustrous: Porcelains from the Yongle Reign of the Ming Dynasty. Guidebook, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2017, p. 51.
In the early Ming dynasty, kiln production was supervised by the court, which was responsible for dingduo yangzhi, ‘authorising the types’ of ceramics to be made. In the Yongle period, Jingdezhen kilns saw an unprecedented refinement of materials and craftsmanship and produced a range of outstanding and graceful wares, such as meiping vessels of various sizes with voluptuous silhouettes of elegant proportions. In contrast to the dense, continuous scrolls popular in earlier periods, separate sprays began to appear on blue and white wares such as the present meiping, leaving much of the white space unfilled and radiating an aura of tranquility and purity, which is quintessential of the period.
Although one of the innovations during the Yongle period was the addition of reign marks, most Yongle vessels remained unmarked. While meiping have been excavated from the Yongle stratum at Jingdezhen, apparently no sherds of this pattern have yet been found. As a result, some of these vessels have been attributed to the Xuande reign (1426-1435) by some scholars.
Meiping of similar form were made specifically for the court during the Yongle period. For example, a pair of Yongle sweet-white glazed meiping with covers from the Ataka collection are inscribed in underglaze blue with the characters neifu or ‘imperial household’, suggesting these vessels were made by order of the court; see The Beauty of Asian Ceramics: From the Collection of The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, Osaka, 2014, pl. 79. Another Yongle white meiping with the characters neifu in blue but without a cover, originally from the Qing court collection and now in the Palace Museum, Taipei, was recently exhibited in Pleasingly Pure and Lustrous, op.cit., p. 19.
Several examples, originally from the Qing court collection, are preserved in the Palace Museums in Beijing and Taipei; see one in Beijing, illustrated in Zhongguo taoci quanji [Complete series on Chinese ceramics], Shanghai, 1999-2000, vol. 12, pl. 12; another in Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang gu taoci ciliao xuancui [Selection of ancient ceramic material from the Palace Museum], Beijing 2005, vol. 1, pl. 85; and a third, attributed to the Xuande period, 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. 1, pl. 76. Two meiping of this design are also preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Minji meihin zuroku [Illustrated catalogue of important Ming porcelains], Tokyo, 1977-1978, vol. 1, pls 12 and 39. Slightly varying in proportion and composition, these two examples are attributed to different reigns; the first, with its fruit sprays more sparsely arranged, is attributed to the Yongle period, while the other, with a cover painted with lingzhi, is attributed to the Xuande period.
Meiping vessels of this design and size were cherished not only by the imperial court in China but also by royal families in the Middle East. The Ottoman Royal collection had a total of six meiping of this design, two of them illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, ed. John Ayers, London, 1986, vol. 2, no. 624. Four others from the Safavid Royal collection preserved in the Ardabil Shrine in Iran are recorded and one of them is illustrated in John Alexander Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Washington, D.C., 1956 (rev. ed., London, 1981), pl. 51 top right.
Another early Ming meiping attributed to the Xuande reign, in the collection of the Shanghai Museum, is illustrated together with a Yongzheng copy in Lu Minghua, Shanghai Bowuguan zangpin yanjiu daxi/Studies of the Shanghai Museum Collections: A Series of Monographs. Mingdai guanyao ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pls 5-21 and 5-22 (images reversed); and an early Ming example in the Jingdezhen Ceramic Museum is published in Keitokuchin jiki [Jingdezhen ceramics], Kyoto, 1982, pl. 36. A meiping of this design and similar size from the Edward T. Chow collection, was sold in these rooms, 19th May 1981, lot 409, together with a Qianlong version with fruit and flower sprays, lot 546. A larger Yongle example from the Estate of Laurance S. Rockefeller was sold in our New York rooms, 21st/22nd September 2005, lot 64. Two further meiping of this design and similar size have been sold in these rooms; one from a Nagoya tea ceremony collection, 8th April 2014, lot 3023 and the other, 7th October 2015, lot 3607.
Finely potted and smoothly covered with a tactile glaze, the present meiping beautifully displays the characteristic ‘heaping and piling’ effect of the cobalt blue, highlighting the depth and texture of the design. This effect, caused by the specific chemical composition of the vivid blue colour imported from Iran, became a trademark of the imperial blue and white wares from the early Ming dynasty and was much desired and copied in the succeeding dynasty. During the Yongzheng period (1723-1735), the Emperor commissioned the Jingdezhen kilns to imitate this type of meiping, probably based on an antique vessel sent from the palace. Copies were continuously made in the Qianlong period (1736-1795), but they diverge in proportion and painting style from the Ming dynasty originals and emphasise a type of precision which is more consistent with their contemporary counterparts. For Qing dynasty copies besides the ones listed above, see a Yongzheng meiping and a Qianlong one in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci, op.cit., vol. 2, pls 185 and 202.
In the early Ming dynasty, meiping of similar form but with a more complex design were made. They are painted with ten fruit sprays between more elaborate borders, depicting melon, ginkgo, cherry and grape in addition to the fruits found on this six-spray decorated meiping. See a pair of covered examples excavated in Haidian district, Beijing, and preserved in the Capital Museum, one illustrated in Fujioka Ryoichi and Hasebe Gakuji, eds, op.cit., col. pl. 142.
This meiping comes from the collection of Tage Wøldike Schmidt (1915-2010), the former director of the East Asiatic Company, a Danish trading and shipping company founded by Hans Niels Andersen in Copenhagen in 1897. Schmidt joined the company in 1933 and was posted to the Far East, including China, since the 1930s. In 1946 he became the branch manager of Tianjin and was promoted to managing director of the company in 1964. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the East Asiatic Company owned several well-established regional offices in China and their branch managers in many of these cities, including in Hankou, Harbin, Dalian and Qingdao, were appointed to represent the Danish government.
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