Fine, imperial painted enamels on metal were created in China as a direct result of the Kangxi Emperor’s fascination with imported enamelled wares from Europe. In order to ensure that the best enamelled wares could be produced for his court he established imperial ateliers and enlisted the talents of both glass-makers and the European Jesuit artists in order to facilitate their development. The appearance of ‘Kangxi yuzhi’ marks – unframed, inside double circles, as in the case of the current vase, or inside double squares – on a number of the surviving examples provides an indication of the Emperor’s close personal attachment to these pieces.
This exquisitely decorated small vase can probably be dated to the latter years of the Kangxi reign, possibly to the period AD 1700-22, since a fully developed enamel palette has been used to great effect in its painted decoration. The delicately-painted flowers are rendered in both pink and blue enamels, of types which were not successfully prepared in the imperial ateliers until around 1700. Indeed this vase can be seen as a celebration of these new enamel colours and the way they could be used to create painterly, but at the same time jewel-like, decoration. A similar palette can be seen on a small white-ground lobed box, also with Kangxi yuzhi mark, in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (see Enamel Ware in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Taipei, 1999, p. 172, no. 82), which also bears a blue Kangxi yuzhi mark. The painting on the current vase is, however, executed with even greater sophistication.
Imperial enamelled wares with white grounds are particularly rare, since the majority of Kangxi enamel on metal vessels have yellow grounds. A slightly larger white-ground enamelled vase with flared mouth is in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (see Enamel Ware in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Taipei, 1999, pp. 176-7, no. 85), while another is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (see Metal-bodied Enamel Ware, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, 43, Hong Kong, 2002, p. 183, no. 174). A slightly smaller white ground enamelled Kangxi yuzhi vase with columnar neck, from a French private collection, was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong on 30 May 2012, lot 4018. All these vases bear Kangxi yuzhi marks.
It is notable that the white ground on the current vase adds to the delicacy of its appearance. In the Kangxi reign the decorators at the imperial ateliers found many aesthetically pleasing ways to manipulate the flowers and leaves of lotuses. The four main flowers on the current vase represent a particularly successful example of this. On two sides of the body of the vase a fully opened blue lotus blossom is painted against five, evenly spaced, stylised, pink lotus leaves. At first glance these pink leaves look like large petals, especially as tendrils appear in four of the gaps between the leaves. However, the fact that they are lotus leaves is made clear on the other two sides, where a pink lotus blossom is displayed against five naturally coloured lotus leaves painted in green with browning edges. The depiction of browning edges on lotus leaves is a noticeable feature of enamel decoration on imperial porcelain in the Kangxi period, and can be seen on imperial famille verte porcelains such as the ‘Birthday’ plate in the Percival David collection (see Sekai Toji Zenshu, vol. 15, Qing, p. 19, pl. 9). The use of stylised lotus blossoms and leaves to create decorative designs on Chinese ceramics can be seen as early as the Tang Dynasty, for instance on a tripod tray in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum (see Ceramic Art of the World vol. 11 - Sui and T'ang Dynasties, Tokyo, 1976, p. 78, pl. 58).
The Kangxi interest in stylisation and manipulation of natural objects to form effective patterns can be seen in the disposition of butterflies to form roundels, as on a Kangxi enamel dish in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (see Metal-bodied Enamel Ware, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, 43, op. cit., p. 190, no. 181) and the disposition of phoenixes on a Kangxi enamel plate in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (see Enamel Ware in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, op. cit., p. 193, no. 94. The stylised lotus scheme on the current vase is especially effective, and is complemented by the mixed floral scrolls which decorate the neck and shoulder of the vessel. The classic scrolls which encircles the foot of the current vase and the squared-spiral band which appears at the top of the neck are both painted with care and delicacy and do not detract from the primary decoration.