On 24 September Sacred and Imperial Part I, a dedicated sale in New York of works from the James and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection, will include one of the finest groupings of 18th-century imperial monochromes in private hands.
‘We have not had a collection of imperial monochromes of this quality, in such a variety of shapes, and in such good condition for quite some time,’ enthuses Vicki Paloympis, a specialist in Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art.
Monochrome porcelain wares made for the three great Qing emperors — the Kangxi Emperor (r.1662-1722), the Yongzheng Emperor (r.1723-1733) and the Qianlong Emperor (r.1736-1795) — have long been revered for their beauty and technical excellence.
‘They are widely regarded as being among the most elegant and sophisticated porcelains of the period,’ says Paloympis. They also have a similar aesthetic to that of contemporary ceramics, notes the specialist.
The three greatest Qing emperors were enthusiastic patrons of imperial porcelain and took a personal interest in its production, explains Paloympis: ‘They revived the finest ceramic wares of the past, whilst encouraging the development of new colour palettes.’
A fine example of this is the rare Guan-type vase pictured below, dating to the Qianlong period but with a shape reminiscent of a Han dynasty (220 BC-AD 220) bronze storage vessel. Its finely crackled pale blueish-grey glaze, meanwhile, imitates the glaze on the Guan wares made for the Southern Song (1127-1279) court.
‘We know of the Qing emperors’ tastes for antiques, and, antique ceramics in particular, from literature and court paintings of the period,’ says the specialist. ‘Many of the paintings depict emperors surrounded by antiques, including Song and early Ming-dynasty monochromes, archaic bronzes and jades.’
The early Qing dynasty also brought many innovations, such as new glazes and shapes. This is perfectly illustrated by the Alsdorfs’ ruby-enamelled Yongzheng bowl, above, with the faintest decoration of dragons on the interior.
According to the specialist, the vibrant colour of the bowl’s exterior derives from colloidal gold, and was introduced by Jesuits serving at the Qing court, and perfected in the Yongzheng period in response to the emperor’s desire for new colours.
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The preceding Kangxi reign had also seen the development of the ‘peachbloom’ glaze, one of the Qing dynasty’s most widely admired and technically challenging glazes. Characterised by blushes of red against a soft pink base colour, peachbloom glaze tended to be applied to small pieces, such as the objects found in a scholar’s studio.
‘Peachbloom vessels are thought to have been a favourite of the Kangxi Emperor, and were given as gifts from the emperor to members of the court,’ explains Paloympis. As a result, peachbloom wares are highly sought after by collectors today.
Among the Alsdorf treasures is a Kangxi peachbloom-glazed ‘beehive’ water pot, above, the domed body incised with three dragon roundels. It would have been used to hold clean water in which a scholar could moisten his brush.
Other notable highlights in the category include a rare Ru-type brush washer covered overall with an even pale-blue glaze, above; and a Qianlong pear-shaped vase, flanked by a pair of animal-head handles, and covered overall with a greyish-blue glaze suffused with golden crackle.
The sale will also feature a rare celadon-glazed conch-form washer dating to the Qianlong period, and a Yongzheng hexagonal bottle vase with twin handles, whose form might be derived from faceted Yue ware vases of the Tang dynasty.