Lakeside Idyll – A Massive Yongzheng Lidded Jar
Rosemary Scott, Senior Academic Consultant Asian Art
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A light boat with short oars - West Lake is good.
A gentle curve in the green water,
Fragrant grass along the dyke,
The faint sound of pipes and song follows me everywhere.
Ouyang Xiu ??? (AD 1007-1072)
This magnificent jar is a superb example of the heights which could be reached by highly skilled ceramic decorators when they had at their disposal the full palette of famille rose colours, and extensive ‘canvas’ provided by large jars of this type. It is notable that all minor bands on this jar were restricted in size and number, in order to allow the artist the maximum area over which to dispose the lakeside scene and the fascinating cast of characters who inhabit it.
Although there are relatively few of them, the minor bands are nevertheless exquisitely conceived, and painted with exceptional skill. Around the foot of the vessel is a delicate, complex band of scrolling foliage, punctuated by pink lotus blossoms. Around the shoulder of the vase and around the upper edge of the cover are beautifully painted lattice bands. In each cell of the lattice is a stylized pink flower-head created using a very fine brush. An unusual addition to these bands are sprays of the flowers of the four seasons – prunus, peony, lotus and chrysanthemum – each beautifully and naturalistically painted as if overlaid on the lattice. These floral sprays create a particularly pleasing contrast between the formality of the lattice and the naturalism of the flowers. Around the neck of the vase are well-spaced sprays of alternating chrysanthemum and peony on a plain white ground. Apart from the gilded bud-shaped finial on the cover, all the remaining decorative space on the jar and its cover is given over to the lively lakeside scenes.
In truth, the scenes could equally represent life along either a lake shore or a riverbank, but the lake shore seems marginally more likely given the preponderance of literary and painted references to famous lakes, such as West Lake in Hangzhou – the subject of Ouyang Xiu’s poem, quoted at the beginning of this note. All the elements of the landscape are well-painted, from the hills along the distant shore, to the rocks, banks and wooden bridges of the foreground. Trees and other plants are shown in profusion, with the gnarled willow tree providing shelter for the group of men who sit drinking convivial cups of wine and eating a variety of snacks beneath it. The feathery fronds of the reeds soften the edges of the banks, while pines, bamboo and flowering shrubs all add colour, texture and structure to the landscape. The numerous boats, either tied up along the shore or cruising along on the water, provide a platform for much of the human activity with which this jar is richly illustrated.
The landscape is inhabited by people who are clearly intended to represent a fishing community, albeit an idealised one, in which there is no evidence of hardship. All the children look happy, well-fed and healthy, everyone is well-dressed and the populace as a whole appear to be enjoying their leisure in a range of different ways. The notion of the people in this fishing community being well-dressed is emphasised by the blue jacket apparently drying on a pole above the boat on which a woman is suckling her baby. The jacket is decorated in gilt, suggesting a woven gold design in the cloth from which it is made. Further round the sides of the jar, the women on another boat are depicted with gilded lotus flowers decorating their upswept hair. As these women are also accompanied by children there is no suggestion that this is a ‘pleasure’ boat.
Children, specifically little boys, are a particular feature in the decoration of the jar and its cover. They are shown engaged in various kinds of play, from the two hiding behind fishing baskets, while a younger boy plays with a fan, on the cover, to the pair playing with crickets at the bank’s edge on the shoulder of the jar, the small boy twirling his rattle, while watched by an elder in a yellow robe and leaning on a staff, and the children playing on the boats. The overall message is that this community has a wealth of healthy sons to carry their family names into the next generation.
Some of the boats are clearly being used for pleasure, rather than as fishing craft. On one boat wine is being heated before it is decanted into a fine blue and white porcelain jar. On another boat, with frilled canopy, a scholar and a lady drink wine and play a board game. However, the majority of the male figures on the jar are clearly intended to be fishermen. One stands in his boat holding his traditional reed cape, while another rows the boat with a single oar at the stern. There are fish baskets in the boat at their feet. Other men wade into the water to retrieve their fish baskets. One man in a brown robe with a basket on his back appears to have sold a fish to a rather elegant lady in green and pink, who delicately holds a flat, open basket in which the fish can be seen. Overall the panorama is one full of life and interest.
The subject of fishermen on a river or lake is one that was close to the heart of many literati in China. Indeed, this was a popular subject with both professional and scholar painters from the 10th century onwards. The handscroll Early Snow on the River (????) attributed to the 10th century artist Zhao Gan (??) in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, shows the life of the fisherman in all its hardship, but in later periods, from the Southern Song dynasty onwards, the view of fishermen provided by artists tended to be a more romanticised one, or else one in which the fishing boats and their inhabitants are little more than complements to the landscape. The handscroll Remote View of Streams and Hills (????) by Xia Gui (?? fl. 1180-1230) in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, is a case in point. In the Yuan dynasty, the theme of fishermen appears in the paintings of both scholar-painters like Wu Zhen (?? 1280-1354), best known for his ink paintings of fishermen, including Fishermen after Jing Hao (?????) in the collection of the Freer Gallery Washington, D.C., and by professional artists such as Sheng Mou (?? fl. 1310-1361), whose tight colourful painting Boating on the River in Autumn (????), in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, is in complete contrast to Wu’s style. Even the Yuan artist Zhao Mengfu (??? 1254-1322), whose landscapes are frequently devoid of human figures, included a fisherman in a boat on the left-hand side of his handscroll Twin Pines, Level Distance (????), dated circa 1310, in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum, New York.
The theme of fisherman and boats became even more popular in the Ming dynasty and certain aspects of composition in Dai Jin’s (?? 1388-1462) famous handscroll Fishermen on the River in the Freer Gallery, Washington, D.C., resonate with aspects of composition on the current jar. Pleasures of the Fishing Village by Wu Wei (?? 1459-1508) also evokes some of the exuberance seen on the current jar, although both paintings are in a very different style to that on the porcelain vessel.
In the Qing dynasty artists continued to be fascinated with boating scenes, be they images of fishermen engaged in their work, or of scholars taking their ease in boats on the water. As well as depictions of Su Shi’s (?? 1037-1101) famous Ode to the Red Cliffs (???), other scenes apparently showing visits to famous waterside sites were often depicted. Wu Li’s (?? 1632-1718) Boating on the River below a Buddhist Temple, in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, for example, shows a group of gentlemen apparently engaged in such an enterprise. The Buddhist monk painter Shitao (? ? 1642-1707), who as Zhu Ruoji (???) was born a member of the Ming imperial clan, included a scholar sitting in a boat reading in his handscroll Landscape with Hermits, now in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. While among the album leaves Eight Scenes of Yangzhou by another of the so-called ‘eccentric’ (? guai) painters of Yangzhou, Gao Xiang (?? 1688-1754), there are three which include boats on the river.
The popularity of the fishing/boating themes had several sources. On one hand, they could subtly convey messages of dissent at a time of political uncertainty or when a foreign dynasty ruled China. Fishermen could also be seen as living their lives in a simple way that was close to nature. A corollary of this was the idea that the literati themselves could achieve perfect tranquillity if they too led a simple life as fishermen on the river, rather than being embroiled in the affairs of state. This feeling also reflected the Daoist wish for retreat and solitude. One view of the literati in regard to this subject is well illustrated by the late Ming scholar-official Li Rihua (???) (1565-1635) in the inscription appended to his handscroll Rivers and Mountains in My Dream, dated to early autumn 1625, which may be translated as:
‘After fishing, the light boat floats in the mist,
The distant mountains, all covered, seem to be at the tip of my flute.
There is no need to be afraid of the scattered rain.
The trees by the river, with their branches stretching out, are good for tying the boats.
Clouds arrive from the trees and shrubs, and water flows from the rocks
Shatteringly in mist by the edge of the thatched hut.
With the coming of autumn, I take this as the dream of Mt. Kuanlu,
And say that my previous incarnation was Bai Letian [Juyi].
(translated in The Chinese Scholar’s Studio – Artistic Life in the Late Ming Period, (Chu-Tsing Li and James C. Y. Watt eds.), New York, 1987, p. 43, handscroll illustrated as exhibit no. 3)
Boats on the water also played a part in the more worldly activities of the scholar-gentry in their leisure time – drinking, gaming, listening to music, or enjoying the company of beautiful women – which is reflected, in a minor way, on the current jar.
Despite the plethora of paintings on silk or paper bearing scenes of fishermen or boating activities, such scenes are relatively rare on 18th century famille rose porcelains. A Yongzheng dish, dated to 1730, in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York is decorated with a river scene with fishing boats, and is illustrated by Yu Chunming (???) in Zhongguo ming pian: Ming Qing wai xiao ci tan yuan yu shou cang (????: ??????????), Beijing, 2011, p. 195, pl. 293. Two almost identical ruby-backed dishes, one in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (accession no. 79.2.670, acquired from the collection of Samuel Putnam Avery in 1879) and one in the collection of Sir Percival David (accession no. PDF 862) are decorated with a scene of fishing boats on West Lake in Hangzhou. However, no other large famille rose jar with this decorative theme appears to have been published.
The massive size and extraordinarily fine painting, as well as the rare subject matter painted in such a lively style, makes this lidded jar a very rare example of the type of monumental vessel, which was not only appreciated in China, but was much sought-after by the owners of palaces and stately homes in Europe.