A MAGNIFICENT AND EXTREMELY RARE LARGE DOUCAI VASE
A MAGNIFICENT AND EXTREMELY RARE LARGE DOUCAI VASE
A MAGNIFICENT AND EXTREMELY RARE LARGE DOUCAI VASE
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A MAGNIFICENT AND EXTREMELY RARE LARGE DOUCAI VASE
4 More
PROPERTY OF THE MUNSON-WILLIAMS-PROCTOR ARTS INSTITUTE SOLD TO BENEFIT THE HELEN MUNSON WILLIAMS ACQUISITION FUND
A MAGNIFICENT AND EXTREMELY RARE LARGE DOUCAI VASE

QIANLONG SIX-CHARACTER SEAL MARK IN UNDERGLAZE BLUE AND OF THE PERIOD (1736-1795)

Details
A MAGNIFICENT AND EXTREMELY RARE LARGE DOUCAI VASE
QIANLONG SIX-CHARACTER SEAL MARK IN UNDERGLAZE BLUE AND OF THE PERIOD (1736-1795)
The spherical body is superbly enamelled with four lotus blossoms interspersed with smaller lotus blossoms above gilt wan emblems, all reserved on a lush ground of leafy scrolls, bordered by a band of stylised bats above clouds on the shoulder and a band of petal lappets above the foot, the tall waisted neck is decorated on either side with a lotus blossom centered by a gilt shou medallion above a cluster of lingzhi, all set against leafy scroll and bordered above and below by ruyi-head bands and flanked by a pair of handles formed as chilong with scrolling bifurcated tails finely shaded in iron-red and with gilt details.
20 3⁄4 in. (52.7 cm.), wood stand
Provenance
American Art Association. Gallery and Art Rooms, New York, 9 June 1883
Helen Elizabeth Munson Williams (1824-1894), New York
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York, object number: PC. 611

Brought to you by

Marco Almeida (安偉達)
Marco Almeida (安偉達) SVP, Senior International Specialist, Head of Department

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Lot Essay

A Monumental and Rare Qianlong Doucai Vase
Rosemary Scott
Independent scholar
Visiting ceramics research fellow, Palace Museum, Beijing


This vase, which is being sold by the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute of Utica, New York in order to benefit the Helen Munson Williams Acquisition Fund, is not only monumental in size and exceptional in quality, it also has wonderfully documented provenance. The vase was purchased by Mrs J. Watson Williams (née Helen Elizabeth Munson, 1824-94) on 9th June 1883 from the American Art Galleries at Six East 23rd Street South, Madison Square, New York. An inventory dated 3rd March 1888 notes that the vase was in Mrs Williams parlour on a pedestal, and a surviving photograph shows it in place.

A letter from the American Art Galleries to Mrs Williams, dated 27th November 1883 begins:

‘Dear Madam
As promised we now give particulars as far we can, as to the vases purchased June 9th last.

The large decorated vase is of the K’ien-Lung period about 1736-50. Mr W. T. Walters of Baltimore who has the finest collection of Oriental Art in the country owns a vase of the same period which we think is the only one that will compare favorably with yours. It is of Pilgrim bottle shape and was purchased from us.’

W.T. Walters’ pilgrim bottle (or moon flask) is now in the collection of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore accession number 49.1685 (fig. 1).

The Walters Art Museum website (see https://art.thewalters.org/ detail/30829/pilgrim-bottle-with-the-character-shou-long-life/) records that the flask was in the collection of William Thompson Walters (1820-94) or that of his son Henry Walters (1848–1931) prior to 1898 and that it was bequeathed to the Walters Art Museum in 1931. The 1883 letter from the American Art Galleries, quoted above, suggests that the flask had entered the collection of William Thompson Walters by November 1883. It is significant that the current vase and the Walters flask have several features in common: their superb quality, their unusually large size (height: 52.7 cm for the vase and 49.1 cm for the flask); the fact that their decoration is executed in the complex doucai technique, and the fact that they both have a pair of, very similar, writhing dragon handles at the neck. Dragons of this form and coloration (but with the addition of green manes) also appear on a Qianlong doucai lidded vase from the Qing Court Collection, now in the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in Porcelains in Polychrome and Contrasting colours, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, 38, Hong Kong, 1999, pp. 280-1, no. 256 (fig. 2).

Most importantly, there is an entry in the Qing palace records which notes that on the 3rd day of the 11th month of the 36th year of Qianlong (1771 AD) “a pair of Chenghua-kiln wucai chilong-handled tianqiu zun was presented by Yilinge at the Yanxindian.”

At this time doucai wares were often referred to as Chenghua-kiln wucai, since doucai decoration was so closely linked to the revered Chenghua reign. During the reign of the Qianlong Emperor the Yangxindian (Hall of Mental Cultivation) was one of the most important halls within the Forbidden City, where the emperor conducted affairs of state. Yilinge served as superintendent from the 33rd to the 37th year of the Qianlong reign (1768-1772).

Professor Peter Lam has conducted detailed research into the form of reign marks during the Qianlong reign, and the reign mark on the current vase accords most closely with the style that he denotes ‘type 6’, (see Peter Y.K. Lam, ‘Towards a Dating Framework for Qianlong Imperial Porcelain’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 74, 2009-2010, p. 24). Lam estimates that this style of underglaze blue six-character seal script reign mark was applied to imperial porcelains between approximately 1750 and 1790, which would accord with the date of 1771 for the vase.

It is very rare to find a vase of this massive size with doucai decoration. As a decorative technique doucai was both difficult and expensive. After throwing and drying the vessel, fine underglaze cobalt blue outlines were painted onto the porous unfired body. As the cobalt immediately soaked into the unfired clay, no mistakes could be rectified. The vessel was then given a transparent porcelain glaze and fired. After the fired piece had cooled, overglaze enamel colours were carefully applied within the underglaze blue outlines and the piece was fired again at a lower temperature. As each firing would have produced some failures, and large vessels tended to be more susceptible to warping and splitting, it would have been an expensive undertaking to create large doucai vessels which met the high imperial standards. The current vase also includes gilded decoration.

It is telling that the Palace Museum in Beijing appears to have published only one Qianlong doucai vase (decorated with tribute bearers) which is taller than the current vase at 71.5 cm. (illustrated in Porcelains in Polychrome and Contrasting Colours, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, vol. 38, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 274, no. 251). Even the famous Qianlong doucai dragon moon flask in the Palace Museum (illustrated by E. S. Rawski and J. Rawson (eds.) in China The Three Emperors 1662-1795, London, 2005, pp. 294-5, no. 217) is, at 49.5 cm. high, smaller than the current vase, while the unusually large Qianlong doucai charger, decorated with the Eight Buddhist Emblems, from the imperial collection in the Nanjing Museum (illustrated in Qing Imperial Porcelain of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Reigns, Nanjing, 1995, no. 104) and an almost identical charger in the Shanghai Museum (see Imperial Porcelain from the Shanghai Museum, The Hague, 2011, pp. 102-3, no. 71) only have diameters of 50.7 cm. and 51 cm., respectively -both smaller than the vase. Only the famous Qianlong doucai flask with a design of a farmer ploughing his fields (inspired by the 1696 Yuzhi Gengzhi tu, Imperially Commissioned Pictures of Tilling and Weaving) in the collection of the Tianjin Museum of Art (illustrated in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daquan Taoci juan, Taipei, 1993, p. 442, no. 936) and the Taber Family tianqiuping vase from the Philbrook Museum of art, sold by Christie’s Hong Kong 30 May 2018, Lot 8888 (fig. 3)are of comparable size to the current Williams vase.

At first sight the decoration on the current vase appears to be comprised of complex and exotic floral scrolls. However closer examination reveals that many ruyi heads have been also been incorporated into the design. The ruyi motif, based on the form of a lingzhi fungus, indicates a wish for ‘everything as you wish’ and was a popular motif for imperial birthdays. On this vase ruyi bands can be seen around the lip of the vase as well as at the junction between neck and shoulder. They also appear at a number of points within the floral scrolls themselves. In addition, four bold gold-coloured swastikas, wan ?, have been applied to the body of the vase. This Buddhist symbol entered China from India, and in AD 693 was declared the source of all auspiciousness by Empress Wu. In later dynasties it became a popular symbol of good luck. The combination of the ruyi and the wan symbols supports the likelihood of this magnificent vase having been produced for an imperial birthday.
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