A rare 'Master of the Rocks' blue and white dish, Kangxi six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle and of the period (1662-1722)

A rare 'Master of the Rocks' blue and white dish, Kangxi six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle and of the period (1662-1722) © Christie's Image 2003

Finely painted in the 'Master of the Rocks' style in pencilled line and blue wash with a scholar and attendant walking towards a lakeside pavilion, and a farmer and his ox in the distance, the exterior painted in blue wash with two low mountain ranges with a pavilion - 10 5/8in. (27cm.) diam. Lot 312. Estimate $20,000 - $30,000. Price Realized $23,900 

Provenance: Collection of Herman Marshall, Cleveland. 

Property from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. James E. Breece III

Notes: Large dishes like this example, where the entire upper surface of the vessel is given over as the major decorative area, provided the Kangxi ceramic artist with a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate his skills in landscape painting. The style chosen to paint the scene on this dish is a version of the so-called 'Master of the Rocks' style. This style, which seems to have developed towards the mid-17th century in the final years of the Ming dynasty, continued to be popular in the early years of the Kangxi reign, with a very few examples being made as late as the turn of the century. The 'Master of the Rocks' style was by no means limited to the brush of a single artist, and appears in a number of versions on porcelains from about 1640 to 1700. It was used on porcelains decorated in underglaze cobalt blue and also those decorated in underglaze blue and copper red. There are even very rare examples where the style has been combined with famille verte enamels. The style itself is characterised by the use of 'hemp-fibre' strokes to produce rocky landscapes full of movement and drama, often combined with the use of fluid dots to depict scrub and foliage.

This development in porcelain painting reflected elements seen in the landscape painting of certain artists working on silk and paper. The use of 'hemp-fibre' brush strokes can be seen in the work of the famous late Ming dynasty literatus Dong Qichang (1555-1636), for example in his hanging scroll Autumn Landscape in the Nü Wa Chai Collection illustrated by J. Cahill in Chinese Painting, Lausanne, n.d., p. 150. The dramatic, almost writhing, rock forms as well as the 'hemp-fibre' brush strokes can be seen in paintings such as Returning Home from Gathering Fungus painted in 1628 by Wang Jianzhang (fl. 1628-44), which is illustrated by S. Little in Chinese Porcelains of the Seventeenth Century - Landscapes, Scholars' Motifs and Narratives, J. B. Curtis (ed.), China Institute, New York, 1995, p. 36, fig. 2. The influence of such paintings on the porcelain decorators at Jingdezhen was not necessarily direct. This style of painting was not only well-regarded, it also lent itself to translation into woodblock printing, and it is quite possible that it was through this medium that aspects of style, such as 'hemp-fibre' strokes were transmitted to the ceramic artists of Jingdezhen.

The 'Master of the Rocks' style was also used on porcelain dishes which had flattened rims and were decorated with minor decorative bands on the rim and in the well of the vessel. The scheme was very effective, as can be seen from an underglaze blue and copper-red-decorated dish, dated to about 1670, in the Butler Family Collection, illustrated by J. Curtis in Chinese Porcelains of the Seventeenth Century - Landscapes, Scholars' Motifs and Narratives, op. cit., pp. 70-1, no. 18. The larger area provided by dishes, like the current example, however, allowed the artist even greater scope for fine landscape painting. A dish of similar size to the current example in the collection of the Shanghai Museum bears rocks painted in very similar style. The Shanghai dish, illustrated by Wang Qingzheng (ed.) in Kangxi Porcelain Wares from the Shanghai Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1998, pp. 8-9, no. 6, incorporates copper red as well as underglaze blue decoration, but nevertheless shares certain characteristics in the method of painting trees with the current dish. The Shanghai example is also interesting for bearing a dated inscription reading: Kangxi renzi Zhonghe Tang zhi' - 'made in the renzi year [AD 1672] of the Kangxi reign for the Hall of Propriety and Harmony'. A slightly larger dish of approximately the same date, also painted in underglaze blue and underglaze red, from the Butler Family Collection illustrated by J. Curtis, op. cit., pp. 68-9, no. 17, shares similar treatment of rocks and trees with the current dish and the one from the Shanghai Museum.

The careful depiction of trees seen on these dishes, was, like the 'hemp-fibre' brush strokes, due to the influence of artists working on silk and paper - not only those already mentioned, but earlier Ming dynasty painters like Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) and Qiu Ying (c. 1510-1551), whose attention to the details of trunk and branch structure as well as leaf growth can be seen in a number of their works. This style of painting trees also appears on Kangxi underglaze blue-decorated porcelains other than those with 'hemp-fibre' rocks, such as the tall square-section vase in the Palace Museum Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (III), vol. 36, Hong Kong, 2000, pp. 22-3, no. 18. A similar approach to the depiction of trees, and significantly a similar combination of rocks, bridge, water and flat promontories, to those on the current dish, can be seen in an early Kangxi blue and white dish with flattened rim illustrated in Transitional Wares and their Forerunners, Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong, 1981, p. 95, pl. 100 and p. 149.

The current dish is particularly interesting since it incorporates in its decoration elements from earlier porcelains and also elements which continue to be used on slightly later wares. The attractive swirling of the water on this vessel recalls that seen on pieces from the Chongzhen reign (1628-44) of the Ming dynasty, like the fine rolwagen vase illustrated by J. Curtis, op. cit., pp. 48-9, no. 4. The dark vertical sides of the pale washed promontories presage those seen on a censer dated by inscription to AD 1708, illustrated in the same volume, pp. 86-7, no. 27, and a baluster vase dated by inscription to AD 1715 in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (III), op. cit., vol. 36, pp. 34-5, no. 28. This dish thus provides not only a fine example of a 'Master of the Rocks' landscape, but a fascinating link between the decorative style of the late Ming and that of the mature Kangxi period.

Christie's. FINE CHINESE CERAMICS AND WORKS OF ART, 18 September 2003, New York, Rockefeller Plaza