The floral blooms on this bowl loosely reference the changing seasons; the lotus is followed by chrysanthemum, rose, tree peony, pomegranate, hibiscus and camellia. Flowers that came to symbolise the seasonal cycles in nature became a popular porcelain pattern during the Yuan dynasty. It is also in this period that the poet Yu Ji (1272-1348) first associated celebrated scholars with seasonal flowers: chrysanthemum, lotus, plum blossom and orchid came to represent Tao Yuanming (365-427), Zhou Maoshu (1017-1073), Lin Hejing (967-1028), and Huang Shangu (1045-1105) respectively. Auspicious flowers and birds were also a popular painting genre among professional court painters active in the early Ming dynasty. On porcelain, flower designs evolved from their Yuan dynasty origins, with a wider variety depicted in a naturalistic and identifiable manner.
The cobalt used for this piece was fired to a bright sapphire tone, and features the characteristic ‘heaping and piling’ effect. While imported sumali cobalt, which is believed to have originated in the area of Kashan in Iran, was favoured in the early 15th century, local cobalt high in manganese was sometimes mixed in. Imported cobalt, which arrived in China through the tribute system, was highly valued as exemplified by an entry from 1431 in the Ming shi lu [Veritable Records of the Ming dynasty] which recounts the arrival at court of a Samarkand envoy with 10,000 catties of foreign cobalt as gift to the Xuande Emperor. On this occasion the Emperor declared: ‘We should show our appreciation of their having travelled such a long distance by sending them away with lavish gifts’ (Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 70).
A closely related bowl in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, is illustrated in A Panorama of Ceramics in the Collection of the National Palace Museum. Hsüan-te Ware I, Taipei, 2000, pl. 52; one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Zhongguo taoci quanji [The complete works of Chinese ceramics], vol. 12: Ming (I), Shanghai, 2000, pl. 64; another from the collection of Mr and Mrs Eugene Bernat, included in the Exhibition of Blue-Decorated Porcelain of the Ming Dynasty, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 1949, cat. no. 62, was sold twice in these rooms, 31st October 1974, lot 61, and 21st May 1984, lot 59; a fourth bowl from the collection of Major Lindsay F. Hay, was sold in our London rooms, 25th June 1946, lot 29, in our New York rooms, 25th October 1975, lot 177, and again at Christie’s London, 7th June 1993, lot 47; and a further example from the Palmer collection illustrated in Sir Harry Garner, Oriental Blue and White, London, 1973, pl. 26a, was sold twice at Christie’s Hong Kong, 17th January 1989, lot 573, and 1st-3rd May 1994, lot 632.
Bowls of this form, all featuring a Xuande reign mark under the rim, are known with a variety of motifs, including dragons amongst clouds, lotus, peony, rose and lingzhi scrolls, the Eight Buddhist Emblems, the Three Friends of Winter, and clusters of fruits. Eight bowls painted with different patterns, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, were included in the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, cat. nos 42-49.
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