The present example appears to be unique as it is the largest blue and white vase with a dragon motif published.
The dragon is perhaps the most important motif in Chinese ceramic decorative repertory being symbolic of Imperial power, and its stylistic treatment on the present vase combines the very best characteristics of pre-Ming and Qing renditions.
During the Song period the dragon motif was established as an archaistic chilong type with three large claws set in relative isolation giving the sinuous snakelike body maximum impact. This was perpetuated during the Yuan Dynasty, although the dragon has become a more 'mature' type. During the early Ming period, the dragon remained unobscured by surrounding decoration, whether clouds, flames, or foliage, retaining its whole body as a dominant single visual entity. During the Qing period, the dragon becomes ever more boldly detailed and defined in its facial features and more elaborate in its general ferocity and fabulous mythological representation. It is depicted in new more menacing and vigorous postures, not only turning back but fully frontal and even seen from below (cf. the vase from the J. P. Morgan Collection sold in these Rooms, 20 March 1990, lot 593).
The present vase is a deliberate derivation of the early Ming style, but more specifically, it follows designs on large early Ming tianqiuping and bianhu as it employs a three-clawed dragon, found only on these forms (cf. D. Macintosh, Chinese Blue and White Porcelain, Hong Kong, 1988, p. 32, fig. 17; Sekai Toji Zenshu, Tokyo, 1976, vol. 14, p. 29, fig. 18-19; J. Ayers, Far Eastern Ceramics in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1980, fig. 47; and Blue and White Ware of the Ming Dynasty, Book II (part I), pl. 3, from the National Palace Museum, Taibei).
Further, it echoes the Ming pattern by portraying the dragons unencumbered by their surrounding decorative grounds, which in the present case of lotus meander is also selected from the early Ming vocabulary and treated as such, albeit more detailed (eg. Sekai Toji Zenshu, Tokyo, 1976, vol. 14, p. 31, pl. 20). Similarly, the borders of breaking waves around the base and rim are borrowed from the rims of early Ming dishes.
However, the present design is by no means a lavish imitation; the dominant dragon is thoroughly Qing in type. It strides and impresses like its three-clawed forebears, but has shed its long forelock and backward glance. Its nose is now shortened and more pointed, its jawline squared, its horns more staglike and its whiskers longer and as sinuous as its finely-scaled body.
The smaller versions of dragon vases more commonly found in the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods tend to obscure the dragons as they weave in and out of misty clouds (eg. the tianqiuping illustrated by J. Spencer in the Chang Foundation Inaugural Catalogue, Taibei, 1990, p. 54, or the vase with a copper-red dragon sold in Hong Kong, 2 May 1995, lot 118) or in the case of examples with multiple dragons, the force of the individual which was so powerful in the Ming prototype is reduced.