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the pear-shaped body split in half across the belly, the upper half exquisitely painted in western style with two scallopped-edge panels, each containing a Chinese lady dressed in a long flowing robe and a young boy in a garden setting, reserved on a dense blue-enamelled ground of formal lotus and chrysanthemum scrolls with feathery leaves, the sides further decorated with a pair of lobed medallions, each enclosing a pair of pink bats centred on a shou character reserved on a lime-green ground, all below a band of floral scrolls on a yellow ground collaring the neck, and alternating red and green 'pearls' on a grey scrolling ground and blue pendant ruyi-heads encircling the mouth, the lower half formed by an unusual 'basket' made of a finely painted simulated archaistic bronze with deconstructed archaistic dragons with bodies forming 'hooks and volutes' on a pale celadon ground, the sides set with a pair of gilt-copper strap handles and two raised gilt-copper rope-twist bands around the belly and the foot, the base inscribed in blue with a four-character blue enamel reign mark set against a white ground within a double square, the interior enamelled turquoise
Emperor Qianlong's Eccentric 'Mother and Child' Vase
This exceptionally executed vase is unusual for its eccentric form that simulates a vessel within a vessel. It appears to be a one-off piece with no other similar or even closely comparable example known. The fine enamelling and exceptional quality attests to it being the product of the Enamel Workshop that was responsible for producing cloisonné, champlevé and painted enamel wares on metal, glass and porcelain for the emperor and his family during the Qing dynasty. Located in the grounds of the Forbidden City, the workshop employed artists of the highest skill who manufactured daily wares as well as exclusive, often unconventional pieces that were frequently commissioned by the emperor himself. This vase is undoubtedly one of the distinctive objects that would have been ordered by the emperor. Although it is unique, the vase bears many of the characteristics closely associated with the taste of the Qianlong emperor, whose reign mark can be found on its base.
At first sight it seems that one is looking at two objects, a richly decorated pear-form bottle that is placed in a two-handled container. The artist has been playful with his material as well: he has made the bottle after richly decorated ceramics vessels, with the container simulating bronze wares that is tied with a twisted rope, like a piece of flax or straw. Qianlong was known for his fondness for ceramics simulation pieces, a technique that was developed and perfected during his reign in the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen under the guidance of his talented Superintendent Tang Ying. His penchant for the tromp-l'oeil saw no limit with artists working in the Palace Workshops striving to create objects that frequently gave the illusion that they were something else.
The overall design of this piece is eye-catching and imaginative. It is reminiscent of enamelled wares painted with the brocade design as if the piece is wrapped in a cloth for ease of transportation or to be given as a gift. It is a form of 'ornamental presentation' which not only suggests the importance of the object itself but also the formality and value placed on the act of 'presentation'. The decorative wrapping, even if it is by way of imitation, has been made into a visual art form. The painted decoration and the implication that a beautiful contemporaneous vessel is placed in an archaic bronze container are also rich in symbolism. While the vase represents the present the two-handled 'bronze' container evokes the glorious past.
The subject of 'mother and child' seen in the two panels on the upper half of this piece was also favoured by Qianlong. Inspired by Western depictions of Mary and the Christ child, the painting of a Chinese lady with her infant was skilfully adapted and executed probably by the Jesuit missionary artists working at the court who introduced it into the Workshop's repertoire modified to suit Chinese taste. The mother is usually dressed in a Chinese costume while the child wears the traditional hairstyle favoured at the time. For examples of vessels decorated with this subject matter see a loop-handled jar included in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Metal-bodied Enamel Ware, Hong Kong, 2002, pl. 212, together with a brushpot with a similar design pl. 222. The design was also favoured by artists producing enamelled porcelain; see a Qianlong mark and period square-section vase painted with the 'mother and child' theme in panels, included in the Special Exhibition of Ch'ing Dynasty Enamelled Porcelains of the Imperial Ateliers, Taipei, 1993, cat. no. 145. For the Western 'mother and child' version of the design see an enamelled melon-form box and cover with panels painted with different scenes included in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Metal-bodied Enamel Ware, op. cit., pl. 208.
Elements of the archaistic decoration seen on the lower half of this vase can be found on two Qianlong mark and period enamelled archaic bronze form vessels, both in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Zhongguo jin yin boli falangqi quanji, vol. 6, Shijiazhuang, 2002, pls. 165 and 166. The dense blue scrolling ground is repeated on a number of Qianlong pieces, for example see a Beijing enamelled hat-stand where the foot is decorated with this design, from the Qing court collection, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Metal-bodied Enamel Ware, op.cit., pl. 211. Similar combination of ruyi-head band, shaded pearls, exotic floral scrolls and figures within panels reserved on a monochromatic scrolling ground as seen on the present vase can also be found on ceramics wares of the period; for example, see a pair of famille-rose vases in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in Stunning Decorative Porcelains from the Ch'ien-lung Reign, Taipei, 2008, pl. 50.
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