ARCHAISM AND REFINEMENT: A MAGNIFICENT QIANLONG MOONFLASK
ROSEMARY SCOTT - INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC DIRECTOR, ASIAN ART DEPARTMENT
This superb example of imperial Qianlong porcelain is a testament to the outstanding artistry and technical skill of the craftsmen employed at the imperial kilns. The flask also exemplifies a number of characteristics typical of the finest pieces made for the Qianlong emperor. The first of these is overall magnificence, while the second is the archaism incorporated into its design.
The Qianlong Emperor was not only an enthusiastic patron of the arts, he was also an avid collector of antiques. While archaism has been an on-going facet of Chinese imperial art from at least the Northern Song dynasty (AD 960-1127), it may reasonably be claimed that the Qianlong reign saw its most widespread and varied use. The shape of the current flask has clear links with the past. The moonflask shape itself was adopted in the early 15th century at the imperial kilns and was made in two versions - one without a foot and one, the predecessor of the current flask, with a flared foot. Of course, flattened circular flasks with handles joining the mouth of the vessel to the shoulder on either side of the neck can be traced back to the ancient world. However, it seems probable that the early 15th century Chinese porcelain flasks were inspired by glass or metal vessels of similar form, which came into China from Egypt, Syria or Iran. There are close parallels to be drawn between the Chinese porcelain flasks and 12th-13th century glass qumqum, perfume sprinklers, from Egypt or Syria, such as those in the Al-Sabah Collection in the Kuwait National Museum. However a gold-coloured metal vessel, even closer to the Chinese early 15th century flask, can be seen in a painting of Humay and Humayun in a Garden from Herat dating to about AD 1430, which is currently in the collection of the Museé des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.
The form was popular in Chinese porcelain in the early 15th century, particularly in the reign of the Yongle Emperor, and was re-established as an imperial favourite in the 18th century, despite the difficulty of firing such a piece successfully. These firing difficulties increased in proportion to the size of the vessel, and it is to be expected that there would have many kiln failures in order to produce the current large, successful, flask. While the handles on the early 15th century porcelain flasks were usually of relatively simple scrolling cloud form, the handles on the current Qianlong vessel display another aspect of Qing archaism. They are essentially in the form of elephant heads - a form which had been seen on Chinese handles for several centuries. These elephant heads, however are flattened, and have been extended in such a way as to call to mind archaic decoration of the late Bronze Age.
One of the most striking aspects of the current flask is it decoration. The quality of the painting is exceptional, and the combination of the rich underglaze cobalt blue with the brilliant oveglaze enamel pink extremely effective. Few porcelains are decorated in this combination of colours and techniques. An identical flask, which may indeed by the pair to the current vessel, is in the collection of the Matsuoka Art Museum, Tokyo, and is published by J. Ayers and M. Sato in Sekai Toji Zenshu, vol. 15, Qing, Tokyo, 1983, pp. 83-4, pls. 92 and 93 (see fig. 1). A somewhat smaller, similarly shaped, flask in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, is decorated in the same palette depicting overglaze pink dragons amongst underglaze blue clouds, illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (II), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, vol. 36, Hong Kong, 2000, pp. 254, no. 232 (see fig. 2). Two Qianlong vases decorated with overglaze pink blossoms on underglaze blue stems are in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in Illustrated Catalogue of Ch'ing Dynasty Porcelain in the National Palace Museum, pl. 21. A pair of Qianlong elephant-head ewers from the collections of Nathan Bentz and Frederick and Antoinette van Slyke, decorated in similar style, were sold at Sotheby's New York on 31st May 1989, lot 203.
The painting of the pink enamelled confronting phoenixes is outstandingly fine on the current flask and its sister vase from the Matsuoka Art Museum. The only published vessels with similar quality pink enamel painting are the palace dragon flask, mentioned above, and a pair of Qianlong fanghu vases with elephant-head handles sold at Christie's Hong Kong on 30th April 2000, lot 600 (see fig. 3 illustrating one). These were decorated with pink dragons amongst blue clouds, and the detail and control of painting of the dragons is of similar superb quality to that seen in the phoenixes on the current flask.
Most scholars believe that pink enamel seems first to have appeared in the Chinese palette right at the end of the Kangxi reign, in about AD 1720. Microscopic examination of this pink enamel has shown red particles immersed in a clear lead-potassium-silicate glass. The rose colour was due to minute colloidal particles of gold. The Chinese rose enamel appears different from the European equivalent colour - the so-called 'Purple of Cassius', developed by Andreas Cassius of Leyden in about 1670. It does not appear to have been made by the European 'Purple of Cassius' method. The Chinese enamel has a much lower tin content and the scientists concluded that it was made not by precipitation but by making up a ruby glass and grinding this up as a pigment to be dispersed in the clear enamel. The advantages of the Chinese method, which was well known among glass makers, was that it used less gold, and it was also easier to achieve an even colouration within the enamel. This even colouration, along with the stability achieved for all the so-called famille rose enamels, allowed the porcelain decorators to achieve a marvellous level of delicacy and refinement in the painting of the phoenixes and flowers on this flask. It should nevertheless be remembered that this gold-derived pink was an expensive enamel, and it is not surprising to find that another Qianlong flask, of similar form and with a similar decorative scheme to the current flask, was decorated with the less expensive iron-red enamel, in place of the pink. The iron-red decorated flask, which was formerly in the collection of Major the Hon, Robert and Violet Carnegie, was sold at Christie's Paris on 22nd November 2006, lot 326 (see fig. 4).
QIANLONG SIX-CHARACTER SEALMARK AND OF THE PERIOD (1736-1795)