The portrayal of the dragon painted on the current blue and white jar is astounding in its sophistication and maturity. Its fierce countenance is imbued with a sense of agility and gravity. The dynamic depiction of the dragon with its head turning backwards and two powerful open claws appears to an early variation of the forward-facing dragon found on blue and white ceramics developed from the Yuan period. The inspiration of this unusually portrayed dragon probably originated from Southern Song paintings such as those by Chen Rong (circa 1200-1266). Compare with two paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston by Chen Rong, the first is a striding three-clawed dragon with curled neck at the beginning of the handscroll, Silongtu, ‘Painting of Four Dragon’, see the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, accession no. 14.50. The second painting is entitled, Jiulongtu, ‘Painting of Nine Dragons’ which depicts a four-clawed dragon glancing backwards, illustrated by Zhang Hongxing, Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900, London, 2013, pp. 198-199, no. 38. The dragon on the current jar is closely related to the dragons painted by Chen Rong in both style and spirit. The additional short spiky bristles in front of tufts of long flowing hair at the elbows of the dragon on the current jar have not been seen before on porcelain of the previous dynasties, but they appear on Chen Rong’s dragons. Also, the dragons appearing in the Jiulongtu are each depicted with its neck flexed and tail extending, using the tension around the neck to indicate movement. The juxtaposition of tension and ease, movement and stillness, is akin to the dragon painted on the current jar. Chen Rong’s dragons have been widely revered and imitated since the Song and Yuan periods, and the Xuande Emperor as an avid art patron and competent artist would have welcomed this influence on Imperial wares.
Potters have already mastered graduating blue tones on blue and white wares in the Xuande period. Connoisseurs of porcelain state that ‘Xuande blue and white is the most prized, as it has the most variations in colour tones, and is superior in its spontaneity’, see Taipei Palace Museum, Special Exhibition of Hsuan-te Period Porcelain, Taipei, 1980, introduction. Its consummate artistic skill is on a par to that of ink paintings. The three main motifs on the current jar – dragon, monster masks and clouds – are all painted with varying tones of blue in bold and steady ink strokes. The outlines are painted using a paler blue, the colouring is done with a darker blue, while the shading is done again with a paler blue, each with great effectiveness. Take the dragon for example, each of the scales is painted with a faint outline and infilled in a darker blue to denote their overlapping structure. The sizes of the scales, their directions and densities change according to the thickness of the body and its movement to successfully impart a sense of realism, and to create pictorial tension. The mane and bristles of the dragon are similarly painted by darker outlines on top of a light blue shading to created depth and density. The white areas of the eyes and the claws have light blue shading to denote volume.
This ability to adapt painting techniques to different subjects is even more evident on the painting of the monster masks. The light blue shading underneath the mane suggests a finer coating of hair below, making the animals come to life. Similar animal masks can be seen on the gilt-silver sword guard dating to the Yongle period, from the collection of the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, England, and included in the exhibition catalogue, the British Museum, Ming: 50 years that changed China, London, 2015, pp. 152-153. It is possible that this motif is symbolic of Imperial martial power.
One of the highlights on the current jar is the scattered cloud scrolls. They have been strategically placed and shaped according to the space available, a device not only fills a void but is also aesthetically pleasing. The cloud scrolls between the four animal masks are particularly creative, breaking up the monotonous symmetry of the masks. Just like the dragon and the animal masks, the cloud scrolls are painted utilizing fully the contrast between lighter and darker shades of blue. For example, the X-shaped cloud scroll above the rear leg is painted with a dark blue outline and a darker blue centre, followed by a light blue shading in-between. The use of darker and lighter blue tones is more commonly seen on Xuande dishes or stem bowls painted with dragon-and-wave patterns. It is very unusual to see such delicate techniques employed on a large jar and as such is a testament to its rarity.
The massive size of the present dragon jar suggests it was probably used as palace decoration as with the two very large Xuande-marked cloisonné enamel ‘dragon’ jars. One of these metalwork is in the British Museum, illustrated in the British Museum, Ming: 50 years that changed China, London, 2015, cover and fig. 64; the other in the Pierre Uldry Collection illustrated in Helmut Brinker and Albert Lutz, Chinese Cloisonné: The Pierre Uldry Collection, Zurich, 1985, no. 5. These two cloisonné enamel jars are similarly decorated with dragons and clouds, albeit each with two dragons rather than a single dragon as on the current porcelain jar. Interestingly, the dragons on the two enamel jars are all striding to the left, while the cloud scrolls on the neck are arranged from upper left to lower right. The dragon on the current jar is going to the right, and the cloud scrolls are positioned from upper right to lower left. This differentiation would indicate that these jars, like the pair of blue and white ‘dragon’ meiping vases in the Nelson Atkins Museum, were made as pairs. However, the current jar appears to be the only example that has survived intact.