This pear-shaped ewer is a superb example of the fine white porcelains with tianbai, 'sweet white', glaze made in the Yongle reign. The form is a particularly elegant one, which probably entered the Chinese ceramic repertoire via metalwork. Clues to the origins of the form may be seen in the spout and handle. The base of the handle on the porcelain vessels, for example, retains three raised bosses, which probably represent studs fixing the handle in place on the metal version. While not presenting a problem in metal, the long, slender, spout of the porcelain vessel would not have survived the firing process, and thus the convention of including a cloud-form strut attaching the spout to the neck for support was adopted. The small ring on the upper part of the handle served as a fastening point for a delicate chain attached to the lid. While ewers of this type would primarily have been used as wine vessels, there is a charming scene showing such a ewer being used to water a potted plant in the palace gardens painted on a Xuande blue and white meiping in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I): The Complete Treasures of the Palace Museum, Li Huibing (ed.) Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 88, no. 85.
An underglaze-blue decorated ewer of this form from the Hongwu reign is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, ibid., p. 17, no. 15, and an underglaze-red Hongwu example is in the collection of the Percival David Foundation, London; illustrated by R. Scott, Imperial Taste - Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1989, p. 58, no. 29. A Yongle blue and white pear-shaped ewer is included in the current sale lot 526.
While a number of pear-shaped porcelain ewers with underglaze cobalt- blue or copper-red decoration are known from the Hongwu, and Yongle reigns, tianbai-glazed examples with incised anhua decoration are very rare. A smaller white-glazed Yongle pear-shaped ewer bearing the same anhua decoration as the current ewer from the collection of Eli Lilly is in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Y. Mino and J. Robinson, Beauty and Tranquility: the Eli Lilly Collection of Chinese Art, Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1983, pp. 238-9, pl. 93. A Yongle white-glazed ewer with anhua decoration of similar size and shape to the current example is in the Rockefeller Collection, Handbook of the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, The Asia Society, New York, 1981, p. 71, left-hand image. One Yongle white glazed ewer of this type with the same motifs is in the collection of the Topkapi Saray, Istanbul, along with two others which have a lotus scroll as their main decorative band, illustrated by J. Ayers & R. Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum Istanbul, Vol. II, Philip Wilson, London, 1986, p. 524, nos. 633 and 634, respectively. Interestingly the Topkapi Saray collection also includes a later copy of this type of ewer, dated to about 1600, ibid. col. pl. 433.
The close links between the designs incised under the glaze of fine Yongle tianbai-glazed porcelains, and those painted in underglaze blue on late Yongle and Xuande porcelains is clearly demonstrated by comparing the design on the current white glazed pear-shaped ewer with an underglaze blue decorated pear-shaped ewer in the collection of the Topkapi Saray, ibid. p. 518-9, no. 617, which appears to share all the major decorative bands. Comparisons may also be made with a blue and white pear-shaped vase excavated from the Yongle stratum at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in 1994, Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1996, pp. 184-5, no. 61. The main decorative band on all three vessels is an unusual floral scroll. In the Chang Foundation and Topkapi catalogues the flowers are referred to as hollyhocks, but a botanist has identified them as yellow hibiscus, Abelmoschus manihot, which flowers in autumn and has been a popular subject among Chinese artists since the Song dynasty. Although rare as a decorative motif in the early 15th century, this flower reappears on a small number of 'palace' bowls in the Chenghua reign, illustrated by R. Scott, Elegant Form and Harmonious Decoration - Four Dynasties of Jingdezhen Porcelain, Percival David Foundation/Sun Tree Publishing, London, 1992, p. 59, no. 52.