Most Chinese archaic bronze ritual vessels claim geometric forms (circular, cylindrical, square, rectangular, etc.), though a few examples—of various functional types—were made in zoomorphic shapes based on animals known in China in early times, including rhinoceroses, water buffalo, elephants, tapirs, owls, ducks, and other birds among them. Most animal-form vessels are for liquids, presumably wine, and are either containers or pouring vessels. Shang-dynasty, zoomorphic vessels tend to be naturalistically shaped—even if they sometimes sport taotie masks, leiwen patterns, and other surface decoration; the most popular ones tended to be you wine vessels in the form of a standing owl. A few Shang vessels combined two animals positioned back to back and presented in profile view; you wine containers occasionally are shaped as two addorsed owls, for example, and gong wine-pouring vessels typically have a crouching tiger at the front and a standing owl at the rear. Such gong vessels are often characterized as metamorphic forms, as they join two disparate animals to create a single vessel. Zoomorphic vessels were produced in fewer numbers during the late Western and early Eastern Zhou periods, when this small ewer was made. When produced, such animal-form vessels, like this bird-form ewer, often were more stylized and more fanciful, and their features more exaggerated, than those of earlier periods. In fact, the surface ornamentation of bronzes of that era, including that of animal-form vessels, also became more fanciful and stylized, often covering the surface with scale-like patterns and incorporating large, C-form elements—in this instance, the C-forms representing the bird’s wings and the repeating, circular, scale-like patterns the bird’s feathers.
Birds appeared among the surface decoration of Shang bronzes, but they typically played a secondary role to the taotie mask, which was the principal decorative motif. In Western Zhou ritual bronzes, by contrast, birds often came to the fore as the principal motif, those bronzes showing a marked preference for long-tailed birds. In that context, this rare vessel’s form mirrors a type of surface ornamentation favored in Western Zhou bronzes.
Zhou-dynasty, bird-form ewers are exceptionally rare, particularly ones that exhibit this vessel’s complexity. A closely related, if slightly less complex, example was sold at Christie's New York, 22 March 1999, lot 194. See, also, the bronze vessel cover in the form of a bird's head, of slightly later date, from the Sze Yuan Tang Collection, sold at Christie's New York, 16 September 2010, lot 843.