10 treasures from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Collection of Chinese ceramics
Originally from the collections of some of America's most prominent 19th and 20th-century financiers and philanthropists — including John D. Rockefeller Jr., Samuel Putnam Avery, Bernard Baruch, Mary Clark Thompson and Mary Stillman Harkness, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of Chinese ceramics is part of one of the world's most comprehensive assemblages of Asian art.
Collected In America: Chinese Ceramics from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (online only, 13-22 September; live sale, 15 September) at Christie's New York will showcase centuries of technical development and aesthetic refinement, offering pieces from the Song to the Qing dynasties. Here we take a look at a selection of those treasures offered in both the live and online auctions.
This famille rose dish was part of The Met’s first purchases of Chinese ceramics, acquired from the Samuel Putnam Avery collection in 1879. One of the founding trustees of the Metropolitan Museum, Avery, who was an engraver by trade and an avid collector and dealer, amassed a collection of 1,300 ceramics, most of which date to the Ming and Qing dynasty, like this dish.
One of the mythical beasts depicted on this bottle vase is known as the qilin, often dubbed the ‘Chinese unicorn’ for its supernatural and mystical qualities. These mythical animals are auspicious omens, whose appearance is said to signify the imminent arrival or departure of a sage. Legend has it that a magical qilin appeared on the evening before Confucius was born.
Water vessels like this were often made for export to the Southeast Asia region, and decorated for foreign tastes. Chinese kilns made porcelain destined to be sent as far afield as Europe and the Near East, where this blue-ground gilt-decorated kendi may have been a symbol of social status for its foreign owner.
The son and heir of the founder of Standard Oil, John D. Rockefeller Jr. devoted himself to philanthropy rather than to the world of business. He was an avid collector of Chinese ceramics and favoured overglaze enamelled porcelains of the famille verte, famille noire and famille jaune groups. The blue-green hues decorating this cup and saucer are representative of the famille verte palette, which developed from simpler wucai or ‘five colour’ decoration used from the Ming dynasty. By the height of the Kangxi period (1662-1722) coloured enamels had reached a new level of refinement, achieving a subtle variety of transparent and pastel blue-green tones.
More than three centuries old, this dragon jar is decorated with the 'Eight Treasures', a sacred grouping of symbols from Buddhist tradition. Used as a decorative motif in China from as early as the Yuan dynasty (13th century), these symbols include a pair of golden fish, a conch shell, a parasol, a treasure vase, a lotus flower, a neverending knot, a victory banner and the wheel of life. Also emblazoned with a dragon chasing a flaming pearl, the jar epitomises auspicious decoration of the Wanli period, and has a six-character reign mark in underglaze blue on the base.
One of the Qing dynasty's most interesting technical developments was the 'peach-bloom' glaze — previously unseen soft pink and green hues that were achieved using a copper glaze and specific firing conditions. Only a small number of these peach-bloom vessels were made in the Kangxi reign, with some scholars suggesting that they were intended as gifts from the Kangxi Emperor himself to his courtiers. Typically made in sets of eight objects for the scholar's table.
The shape of this water pot, used on the scholar’s table, has inspired many different names. In Chinese they are known as taibai zun, Tai Bai being the style name of the Tang dynasty poet Li Bai, who is often depicted leaning against a large wine jar of the same shape. They are also known as jizhao zun, or ‘chicken coop’ water pots, because their shape resembles that of a traditional basket-style cage.
The famille rose palette was first introduced into China in the late Kangxi period (1622-1722) when Jesuit priests brought the rouge-red oxide-based enamels. This enabled ceramicists to create the soft pink colours and deep ruby seen in famille rose porcelains. By mixing with white enamel, it allowed a greater range of tones and shading than was previously possible. This enables the depiction of more complex images that suggest shape and depth. The famille rose palette reached its height and became dominant during the Yongzheng reign (1723-1735), and the most popular motif was the combination of peonies and a butterfly. The present cup and saucer is a classic example from Yongzheng period. The graduating shades of the pink on the peonies and the yellow on the gourds and finger citrons demonstrate the use of different shades suggest the natural colours of fruit and flowers.
The early 18th century saw the transformation of overglaze enamels from a palette dominated by transparent blues and greens to one in which ruby-red and pink became the major colours. This change came with the introduction of three new colours — a translucent ruby, opaque white (achieved using lead arsenate) and opaque yellow (lead stannate). The elaborate decoration of this dish showcases the variety of hues in the famille rose palette during the Qianlong period (1736-1795), and beautifully brings this horse-riding scene to life.
Underglaze blue-decorated wares, which had their origins in the Yuan and Ming dynasties, reached great popularity in the Kangxi reign, when the brilliant cobalt blue tones were perfected and beautifully contrasted against the bright, white porcelain. Made for both the domestic and export markets, blue and white wares created during this short reign exhibit a wide variety of interesting shapes, such as the small bamboo-shaped vase shown here, as well as the gu-form vase, which was based on an archaic bronze prototype.