Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain and other Chinese works of art from one of America’s leading cultural institutions are to be offered at Christie’s in New York in September 2019
The Art Institute of Chicago ranks among the world’s leading centres for the study, preservation and presentation of works from across the world. Founded as a museum and a school for the fine arts in 1879, when civic energies were dedicated to rebuilding the city in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1871, it moved to a larger, purpose-built permanent home in 1893, the same year as the city hosted the World’s Fair.
For the nearly 30 million people who visited the World’s Fair over its six-month run, the far-flung corners of the world suddenly became visible, as paintings, ceramics, prints and textiles helped bridge the gap towards an understanding of world cultures.
The success of the Exposition boosted Chicago’s status as an ascendant, dynamic metropolis deserving of a world-class cultural institution. The Art Institute thus became one of the principal repositories for the fine art collections of Chicago-based philanthropists and connoisseurs, individuals and families whose generosity continues to enrich the museum’s holdings today.
A tradition of patronage
The museum’s superb Chinese works sit within an especially notable tradition of patronage and collecting in Chicago. The first substantive works of Asian origin to be exhibited at the Art Institute were Japanese woodblock prints lent from the collection of local businessman and Asian art enthusiast, Clarence Buckingham. Following his death in 1913, the collector’s sister, Kate Sturges Buckingham, lent and eventually gifted the entirety of his assemblage to the museum.
Since then, other notable Chicagoan benefactors — including Russell Tyson, Martin A. Ryerson, James and Marilynn Alsdorf and Dorothy Braude Edinburg — have bequeathed gifts to the museum, significantly expanding the Art Institute’s rich holding of Asian art.
The museum’s collection of Asian art now features strong examples of Chinese archaic ritual bronzes, ceramics and jade; a truly exceptional assemblage of Japanese prints; fine Southeast Asian and Indian sculpture; and important Korean art.
On 12 September 2019 in New York, Christie’s will offer an outstanding selection of Chinese art from The Art Institute of Chicago, including a large grouping of Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain and unusual Qing dynasty glass. There will also be a complementary online sale from 10 to 17 September.
Leading the collection of Chinese art is a large blue and white globular vase (below), dated to the Qianlong reign (1735-1796). The body of the vessel is decorated with two cobalt-blue five-clawed dragons set among lotus scrolls, rather than the more usual background of waves or clouds.
‘The design and the form of this vase echo early Ming-dynasty prototypes,’ explains Christie’s Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art specialist Jessica Chang. ‘Although decorative schemes depicting dragons frolicking among lotus leaves were popular in the 15th century, this combination of motifs enjoyed a revival during the Qianlong Emperor’s reign.’
Globular vases of this considerable size and superb quality featuring imperial seal marks rarely come to market. ‘What makes the present vase particularly desirable, though, is its imperial connotations’, says Chang. ‘While lotus scrolls represent purity in ancient Chinese culture, five-clawed dragons symbolise imperial power.’
Then there’s the vase’s recent history. Before entering the Art Institute’s collection in 1937, the vase was in the art collection of the renowned Chicago philanthropist Martin A. Ryerson (1856-1932) and his wife Carrie (1859-1937).
Upon inheriting the family business at the age of 36, Martin Ryerson became the wealthiest individual in Chicago. Over the course of his lifetime, he assembled an important collection of Old Master paintings, French Impressionist and American paintings, as well as works of art from across the Asian continent. Many works formerly in Ryerson’s collection now reside in The Art Institute of Chicago.
Further highlights coming to auction in September include these two exceptionally large wucai (five-colour) vases from the Wanli period (1573-1619). Also known as garlic-mouth vases for their bulb-shaped mouths, they were most likely used for showcasing blossoming flowers or for storing water.
‘Garlic-mouth vases painted in the wucai palette are highly sought after by collectors of Chinese ceramics from the Wanli period,’ says Chang. ‘The fact that both of these vases bear reign marks of the Wanli Emperor around the rim, and are decorated with exquisitely painted crustaceans and fish, makes them even more appealing.’
These vases were bequeathed to The Art Institute of Chicago in 1954 by Russell Tyson, who donated almost 1,000 objects, the majority of which were works of art from Asia.
There are many other treasures in the auction. Among the earliest is a stencil-decorated pear-shaped vase (above), with dark-brown glaze and fixed-ring handles, which was fired at the Jizhou kilns during the Southern Song to Yuan dynasty (1127-1368). Located in central Jiangxi province, the Jizhou kilns were perhaps the most daring, versatile and technically creative kilns of the Song dynasty.
Although they produced a wide variety of wares, including northern-style white stonewares, the Jizhou kilns are most famous for their brown and black-glazed wares. Those that are stencil-decorated — a technique of using openwork paper cut-outs as stencils to create designs — are among the most coveted by collectors today.
Other notable lots include a large famille verte dish depicting Magu, the goddess of longevity, with an attendant and a deer pulling a cart (above left); and an extremely rare underglaze-blue decorated enamel stem bowl, with a Qianlong six-character seal mark and of the period (above right). The combination of yellow and blue is one of the most elite colour palette combinations.
‘In generic Chinese, the word for yellow is a homophone for Emperor, which suggests that this stem bowl might have been reserved for imperial use,’ says Chang. From 18th-century imperial China, to the elite of Chicago in the first half of the 20th century, to a renowned American cultural institution, the history of this stem bowl is outstanding.
Also coming to auction is an important group of peachbloom-glazed vessels, including washers, a vase and a waterpot (above), probably made for a scholar’s desk during the Kangxi period (1662-1722). This grouping of vessels entered the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago from the important Asian art collection of Kate Sturges Buckingham (1858-1937), also known as ‘Chicago’s Grandest Spinster’, and one of the wealthiest women in America at the time.
Kate Buckingham’s association with The Art Institute of Chicago developed alongside that of her brother, Clarence Buckingham, a successful banker, and a governing member and trustee of the museum. The white wares in her monochrome porcelain collection, included in both Christie’s live and online auctions, were assembled to please her beloved sister Lucy, whose favourite colour was white. See below to view all lots in the sale.