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EARLY POTTERY FIGURES FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE COLLECTION (LOTS 1472-1487)Almost unknown outside China before the late nineteenth century, Chinese pottery sculptures came to world attention over the course of the twentieth century. Now, virtually everyone recognizes Tang horses and camels, not to mention, the life-sized terracotta warriors from the trenches surrounding the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi (r. 221–210 BC), the first emperor of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC). Most collectors of Chinese pottery sculptures have specialized in the brilliantly colored sancai, or “three-color”, glazed examples from the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907). By contrast, this collection embodies a much more comprehensive view, including examples from the Han (206 BC–AD 220) through the Tang dynasties, the works thus spanning nearly a millennium. The collection is especially strong in sixth- and seventh-century sculptures, fascinating and compelling works that commanded only limited admiration from previous generations of collectors, who prized eighth-century glazed figures above all others. Avoiding the road already well traveled, this collection focuses on unglazed pieces that were embellished after firing with mineral pigments, a technique known as “cold painting”, though the collection includes distinguished glazed pieces as well. In fact, many believe that unglazed sculptures, lacking brilliant colors, are the best vehicles for conveying the power of pure sculptural form; in addition, cold-painted ceramic sculptures also best reflect the sculptors’ achievements in naturalistic description, as the artists were better able to capture realistic details with the broad palette of mineral colors than with the limited palette of bright colors afforded by the glazed tradition. In fact, many scholars believe that people of the Tang dynasty likely prized unglazed, cold-painted sculptures over the colorful, sancai-glazed ones, as they better express the goal of idealized naturalism than do the bright and often arbitrarily colored sancai-glazed sculptures; moreover, it is only the cold-painted sculptures, never the sancai-glazed ones, that occasionally bear original traces of gold-leaf embellishment.From earliest times, the reasons for creating funerary vessels and sculptures were four: to provide food, water, and wine to sustain the spirit of the deceased in the next life; to provide a variety of humans and animals to serve, entertain, and amuse the spirit of the deceased; to provide guardians to protect the spirit of the deceased on its journey to the next world; and to provide a sufficiently great quantity of food, sculptures, and luxury goods to establish beyond all doubt the wealth, importance, and elevated status of the deceased—whatever his or her actual status in the temporal world might have been—so that he or she would not only repose in glory but be appropriately received in the next world. During the Neolithic period, provisioning with food and drink seems to have been of paramount concern, and hence vessels of various shapes and functions were primary. By the Shang dynasty (c. 16th century–c. 1050 BC), however, the other functions were rapidly ascending in importance. With its thousands of life-sized horses and armor-clad warriors, Qin Shihuangdi’s so-called terracotta army, discovered near present-day Xi’an, in Shaanxi province, reflects an early preoccupation both with protecting the spirit of the deceased from demons and evil spirits and with demonstrating the late emperor’s wealth and projecting his military might.Already in Neolithic times, the spirit of the deceased had been provisioned with vessels filled with grain, water, and wine. By the Shang and Zhou (c. 1050 BC–221 BC) dynasties, elaborate ceremonies had evolved that required the use of jade implements and bronze ritual vessels. Shang ceremonies sometimes involved human and animal sacrifices as well, the animals including elephants, rhinoceroses, horses, oxen, pigs, and dogs, among many others. Sculptures carved in wood were used in the south during the Warring States period (481–221 BC), perhaps as substitutes for the sacrificial victims of earlier times. Used in the north in the fifth and sixth centuries BC, if only infrequently, pottery sculptures of fired ceramic ware became a standard feature in the north in the late third century BC. That date marks the beginning of a long, continuous tradition of provisioning the spirits of the deceased with sculptures, a tradition that would persist into the Tang dynasty, through the eighth century and well into the ninth.The earliest such ceramic sculptures produced in any quantity—those of the Qin and Han dynasties—represent warriors and horses. Intended to protect from demons and evil spirits while at the same time symbolizing the wealth, political power, and military might of the deceased, they depict ethnically Chinese figures in native attire. The repertory of subjects expanded during the Han dynasty to include court attendants, entertainers, and barnyard animals. By the sixth century, not only had the range of subject matter expanded further still but came to reflect influences from India, Persia, and Central Asia that reached China via trade over the fabled Silk Route. Those influences manifest themselves most forcefully in the foreign faces and clothing styles of the guardians, merchants, and grooms represented—a cosmopolitanism that culminated in the exceptionally naturalistic sculptures from the Tang dynasty. During the Tang dynasty, China was the undisputed leader of the world, her capital, Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), the world’s largest, richest, most cosmopolitan city. As a wealthy, sophisticated metropolis and as the eastern terminus of the Silk Route—even if numerous foreign goods, including luxury items, did find their way farther eastward to Korea and Japan—Chang’an was a magnet for a multitude of non-Chinese visitors, traders, and religious mendicants. Chang’an had not only great Buddhist temples and monasteries but sizable communities of Muslims, Jews, and Nestorian Christians as well, adding to the religious and intellectual fervor of the day.The earliest sculptures in this collection date to the Han dynasty, likely to the Western Han period (206 BC–AD 9). Such sculptures typically represent officials, attendants (lot 1474), entertainers, and dancers (lot 1473) as well as horses and a few other animals. Not intended to be seen individually, these pottery sculptures—indeed those of all periods—were conceived as sets that might include just a few figures or hundreds, even many hundreds, of figures, depending upon the wealth and status of the deceased. Created in molds, such sculptures were are of gray earthenware, a low-firing ceramic ware that generally matures in the range of 800° to 900° Celsius. The sculptures show restrained elegance, their surfaces smooth, their lines flowing; the figures’ masklike faces are similar from one figure to the next, and their robes, which often flare outward at the bottom, typically have long, wide sleeves. From the Han through the Tang dynasties, figures who are neither gesturing or holding an object typically hold their arms before their chest and conceal their hands within their generous sleeves (lots 1474, 1484, 1485). Only rare Han-dynasty sculptures retain any pigment today (lot 1473), but at the time they were made most were embellished after firing with colorful designs painted in mineral pigments (i.e., so-called cold painting). Such sculptures were typically covered with a coating of white pigment which smoothed the surfaces and provided the perfect ground against which to showcase the reds, blacks, ochres, greens, blues, and other mineral colors.During the Six Dynasties period (AD 220–581), and particularly during the Northern Wei dynasty (AD 386–534), ceramic sculptures became more elaborate, soldiers wearing armor and holding swords (lot 1476), oxen outfitted with harnesses (lot 1477), the harnesses even embellished with bosses, and horses sporting bridles, tassels, and blanket-covered saddles (lot lot 1475). Ceramic sculptures from the Northern Wei period, which typically date to the first third of the sixth century, often appear slightly mannered, the human figures subtly elongated (lot 1476), the horses with heads that are small in proportion to their bodies (lot 1475). Still crafted in gray earthenware, many of the sculptures retain at least some pigment (lot 1477, 1479), typically red, which was applied directly to the gray body rather than over an underlying white ground. From the Northern Wei onward, ceramic sculptures often were integrally fired on a square or rectangular plinth, or base, which imparted stability to the generally upright, vertical figures (lot 1475, 1479).Beginning in the Sui dynasty (AD 581–618) and continuing through the Tang, most ceramic sculptures, whether glazed or cold-painted, were formed in white or off-white earthenware (lots 1479, 1481, 1484, 1485, 1486, 1487). As this collection demonstrates, female figures ranked among the most popular during the Tang dynasty, some representing musicians (lot 1479), others court ladies (lots 1486, 1487), and yet others royal figures (lot 1481). Tang sculptures, whether pottery sculptures or carved stone images of the Buddha, are the most naturalistic of all Chinese sculptures. Figures from the early Tang period are slender (lots 1479, 1481), and their hair is sometimes arranged in a squared bun atop the head (lot 1479). Among the most extraordinary figures of all are those dating to the seventh century and representing princesses (lot 1481); elegantly attired in generously sleeved robes and stylishly upturned shoes, such figures project grace and confidence. From a technical point of view, they are more complicated that earlier figures, as their long sleeves are hollow, at least at the front, and they incorporate open space between arms and torso. By contrast, female figures from the eighth century, by which time the so-called sancai, or three-color, glazes had soared to popularity, generally are more rotund in proportion, their bodies plump, their faces full and round (lots 1476, 1487). Female figures from the Tang dynasty sport a variety of hair styles, some simple (lots 1479, 1481, 1484), some complex (lots 1486, 1487). Although their glazes impart brilliant color to the robes of the sancai sculptures (lots 1486, 1487), as witnessed particularly by the exquisite sculpture of a lady holding a goose-shaped ewer (lot 1486) , the hair and faces of those figures were left unglazed and were embellished after firing with cold-painted pigments in order to make the figures appear as naturalistic as possible.Late in the Tang dynasty—i.e., late eighth and ninth century—both male and female figures often became portly, the women’s hair arranged in complex, bouffant coiffures (lot 1485). The women’s long, high-waisted robes often cover their shoes; the men’s robes, too, often reach to their boots but, in contrast to the women’s, are “low waisted”. Figures of men and women at leisure made their appearance during the Sui and Tang—apparently aristocrats out hunting, playing polo, riding for pleasure, or just otherwise enjoying themselves. Such activities were reserved for persons of wealth and high status. Many late Tang ceramic sculptures were crafted in white earthenware, but some, like the couple in this collection, were done in buff earthenware.Major changes in funerary customs after the Tang dynasty led to a significant decrease in the use of pottery sculptures. After the Tang dynasty, the Chinese, influenced by Buddhist customs, began to burn paper replicas of the goods they wished to offer the spirit of the deceased in the belief that the smoke from the burnt offering would convey to the next world the essence of the image burned, whether a horse, guardian warrior, ox and chariot, or gold ingot. Thus, what had been a major tradition for more than a thousand years suddenly became a minor tradition after the fall of Tang, with a commensurate decrease in the sculptures’ artistic vitality. The long period from the Han through the Tang thus represents the “Golden Age” of the Chinese pottery sculpture tradition—precisely the period to which the sculptures in this collection belong.Robert D. Mowry 毛瑞Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus, Harvard Art Museums, andSenior Consultant, Christie’s


The dancer wears long, tightly wrapped, layered robes that accentuate the slender profile of her curved body as she bends forward in a moment of the dance. The robes flare at the base exposing one shoe in front and are hiked up in the back in a graceful arch, while the empty ends of the full sleeves are flung outwards in sharp angles. Her face is modeled with strong, intent features, and her hair is parted in the middle and combed back in a looped knot. There are remains of white, pink, red and black pigment.
19 7/8 in. (50.5 cm.) high, lucite stand
Sotheby's New York, 31 May-1 June 1994, lot 234.

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Lot Essay

Music and dance were important elements of court ritual during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), and this elegant figure in her tight-fitting, wraparound robes (shen-i) represents a 'long-sleeve' dancer. A figure of this type, which has one long sleeve flung over her shoulder and the other pendent at her side, in the Weber Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is illustrated by D. P. Leidy, How to Read Chinese Ceramics, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2015, no. 3, where Leidy includes a poem that refers to these dancers:

"And they waved their long, dangling sleeves,
With a curvaceous, cultivated bearing,
Their lovely dresses fluttered like flowers in the wind.
There eyes cast darting glances,
One look could overthrow a city."

Another dancer of this type is illustrated by R. D. Jacobsen, Appreciating China: Gifts from Ruth and Bruce Dayton, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2002, pp. 144-45, no. 76. The sleeves of this dancer are shown dangling from her raised hands which are held in front of her body. See, also, the four related dancers included in the Eskenazi exhibition, Early Chinese art: 8th century BC - 9th century AD, London, 6 June - 8 July 1995, nos. 33 and 35 to 37. The empty ends of the sleeves are depicted as flat like those of the present figure.

The result of Oxford thermoluminescence test no. 666z40 is consistent with the dating of this lot.

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