Samuel C. Davis was the son of a prominent family in St. Louis and gained his interest in Chinese ceramics while embarking on a world tour after graduating from Harvard University in 1893 and also from attending the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition where there were displays of Asian art. He purchased many of his pieces from C.T. Loo. On his death in 1940, he bequeathed two hundred and two pieces of porcelain, as well as stone, bronze and lacquer to the St. Louis Museum of Art. He also gave some pieces to Harvard University. His brother was Dwight F. Davis, after whom the international tennis tournament Davis Cup is named.
Luohan, also known as Arhats or 'Destroyers of the Passions', vary in numbers between 16-108 and are depicted in Chinese art from the Tang dynasty onwards. As Buddhas apostles, Luohans were first mentioned as sixteen Arhats in the Mahayanavataraka which was translated into Chinese in AD 437. A full transcript of these sixteen names was given in AD 653 by the pilgrim monk Xuan Zang with the additional two that were probably adopted by the end of the 10th century, these being the Arhats who tamed the Dragon and the Tiger representing Eastern and Western directions respectively.
The Qing emperors were devout Buddhist followers and continued the practice of Luohan worship. It is known that when the Qianlong Emperor visited Sheng'en Temple in Hangzhou in 1757, he was invited to view a painting of sixteen Luohan by the revered Five Dynasties monk-painter Guan Xiu and was immediately fascinated by it. He even ordered his court painter Ding Guanpeng to replicate Guan Xius painting, and composed poems to eulogise the image. As a result, works of art depicting the sixteen Luohan in Guan Xius style became one of the frequent tribute offerings by high-ranking officials to the emperor.
However, porcelain figures of Luohan from the first half of the 18th century are extremely rare. According to Comprehensive Records of Zaobanchu Workshops, in the fourty-fifth year of the Qianlong reign, an Imperial command was issued to the Imperial Household Department for four zitan altar tables in the Ningshou Palace displaying ceramic Luohan to be adjusted in size (see Annotated Collection of Historical Documents on Ancient Chinese Ceramics, Taipei, 2000, p. 266). From this palace record we know that ceramic Luohan figures were displayed within the palace, and were placed within the prestiglous Ningshou Palace, the Qianlong Emperors retirement retreat. The fact that four zitan altar tables were needed suggests that not only one Luohan figure was displayed, but likely a whole set of sixteen or even more. The current pair of Luohan figures are each incised on the rock base with the inscription dong si 'east four' and dong ba 'east eight', likely to be numbering systems for their placement in specific order and location. The numbers four and eight on these figures are also a strong indicator that they were originally from a group of sixteen or even more.
Although there is no reign mark on these two figures, their workmanship and rendition of details are undoubtedly of Imperial quality. The execution of the rock bases is very similar to that of a Luohan painting by the Ming dynasty court painter Ding Yunpeng, now in the National Palace Museum, Taipei and illustrated by James Cahill, The Distant Mountains: Chinese Painting of the Late Ming Dynasty, Beijing, 2009, p. 287, pl. 7.12. Similar rocks with sharp angular contours can also be found on a number of Qing dynasty court paintings, such as the famous set of paintings depicting the Yongzheng Emperor pursuing pleasure in different guises (fig. 1), now in the Beijing Palace Museum, illustrated in Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court, The Complete Collection of the Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 1996, pl. 18. It is therefore extremely likely that the current pair of Luohan figures, exquisitely potted with sublime beauty, is modelled after paintings drawn by professional court artists.
Compare also to three Qianlong-period famille rose figures of Buddha, one from the Helene Terrien Collection and sold at Christies Hong Kong, 31 October 2000, lot 924; one at Christies Hong Kong, 28 May 2014, lot 3465; and one from the J.M. Hu Collection, sold at Sothebys New York, 4 June 1985, lot 70.