This basin is a particularly attractive example of this form decorated in cloisonné enamels, which has been attributed to the Imperial workshops. Two fish basins, of similar size and with similar decoration of deer on the exterior and fish on the interior, in the Pierre Uldry Collection and the Avery Brundage Collection, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, are illustrated by H. Brinker and A. Lutz, Chinese Cloisonné: The Pierre Uldry Collection, Asia Society Galleries, New York, 1989, no. 322 (the Uldry basin) and p. 141, fig. 72 (the Brundage basin). Brinker and Lutz note, p. 141, in relation to the Uldry basin and an incense burner from the same collection: "that an almost simultaneous origin in the second half of the eighteenth century, and in one and the same workshop, presumably the palace workshop in Beijing, can be unreservedly claimed for both pieces". These authors also note in regard to the Uldry and Brundage basins that "In our view, these two pieces represent the final climax to date in the history of Chinese cloisonné art". The same can undoubtedly be claimed for the current vessel. Brinker and Lutz suggest the probability that the Uldry and Brundage basins were a pair. The existence of the current basin suggests that there may originally have been two pairs of these superb fish basins. The fourth basin, making up the two pairs, is probably the one formerly exhibited at the High Museum, Atlanta, Georgia, which was sold at Sotheby's, New York, 1 - 2 December 1992, lot 167.
The decoration on these fish basins incorporates contrasting designs inside and out - the exterior having smaller scale elements against a predominantly white ground, while the interior has larger scale elements against a predominantly turquoise ground. In both cases, however, the choice of motif is auspicious. On the interior boldly colored fish and other creatures swim amongst aquatic plants. Fish have remained a popular theme in the Chinese decorative arts and can convey a range of auspicious messages, most of them based upon the sound of the word. The word for fish itself (yu) sounds like the word for abundance or surplus. Thus two or more fish represent multiplied abundance and gold fish (jinyu) suggest an abundance of gold. Fish in water provided a rebus for yushui hexie, 'may you be as harmonious as fish and water'. Two of the fish in the basin appear to be carp, and the word for carp is pronounced li, which sounds like the word for profit, and thus two carp would represent doubled profit. On the exterior a number of different motifs suggesting longevity have been combined to create a pleasing landscape scene. The elements suggesting long life include deer, cranes and pine trees.
A pair of Qianlong-marked cloisonné basins of similar size and interior decoration, but with a lotus pond design on the exterior, was sold Christie's, Hong Kong, 27 October 2003, lot 735.