A famille-rose 'Hundred Deer' vase, Qianlong seal mark and period

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Lot 321, A famille-rose 'Hundred Deer' vase, Qianlong seal mark and period. Estimation: USD 600,000 ~ 800,000. Photo: Sotheby's

of archaistic hu form and generous proportion, the well-rounded sides deftly painted with a continuous and lively scene of deer in a mountainous landscape setting, finely enameled in naturalistic tones of brown with carefully drawn fur, many of the deer spotted in white and a few with lightly dappled white coats, some resting or grazing, others gamboling, one drinking from a stream and two shown with horns locked in contest, several partially hidden by the dense foliage and twisted trunks of pine and cypress trees amidst craggy rockwork in green and blue enamels of varying tones and detailed with delicately applied black enamel, the pink enamel sparingly applied to two fruiting peach trees and some sprigs of lingzhi, the, the shoulder set with a pair of archaistic dragon-form loop handles in iron-red with gilt details, the base with a seal mark in underglaze blue. Height 17 1/4  in., 44 cm

ProvenanceAcquired in the 1930s, and thence by descent.

Hundred Deer at the Mulan Imperial Hunting Preserve
Regina Krahl
Qing imperial porcelain vases with nature scenes freely painted in purely Chinese style, fully covering the vessel’s surface, uninterrupted or framed by decorative borders, can be counted among the finest products of the Qing imperial porcelain workshops at Jingdezhen. They were done for only a short period, during the tenure of Tang Ying (1682-1756) as supervisor of the imperial kilns, from the Yongzheng (1723-35) until the early Qianlong (1736-95) period.
‘Hundred deer’ vases such as the present piece carry not only a highly auspicious message, since the words for deer and good fortune (lu) are homophonous, and since the deer as well as the pine and peach trees depicted around the sides, are all symbols of longevity; but in addition, the whole scenery, which continues around the whole vase as if on a handscroll, is emblematic of the Qianlong Emperor’s personality and rulership.
Reviving practices introduced by his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722), the Qianlong Emperor restored the institution of regular training hunts outside Beijing, with soldiers from the Eight Banners, wishing thus to uphold traditional Manchu customs as well as to train the skills of his troops in riding and shooting from horseback. Apparently from the third year of his reign onwards (1738), he organized regular hunts in the imperial hunting preserve at Mulan near Chengde in Rehe (Jehol), northeast of Beijing, whose wooded hills were renowned for their rich stock of deer. He so much favored spending the summer months at Mulan that it turned into something like a temporary summer capital, where he frequently received foreign envoys in the imperial yellow yurt.

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FIG. 1. Giuseppe Gastiglione, The Qianlong Emperor on a Hunting Trip, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period. Image © Palace Museum, Beijing

On the occasion of his 82nd birthday in 1793 he also received the British envoy of King George III (r. 1760-1801), Lord Macartney (1737-1806) there. After the birthday celebrations some of the high Qing officials suggested an outing to the Western hills, whose ravishing beauty clearly overwhelmed him, as he describes them as exhibiting “all the sublimer beauties of nature”:

It is one of the finest forest scenes in the world, wild, woody, mountainous and rocky, abounding with stags and deer of different species, and most of the other beasts of chace, not dangerous to man. In many places immense woods, chiefly oaks, pines, and chestnuts, grow upon perpendicular steeps, and force their sturdy roots through every resistance of surface and of soil, where vegetation would seem almost impossible. These woods often clamber over the loftiest pinnacles of the stony hills or, gathering on the skirts of them, descend with a rapid sweep and bury themselves in the deepest vallies [sic].

(John Barrow, Some Account of the Public Life, and a Selection from the Unpublished Writings, of the Earl of Macartney, London, 1807, pp. 273-4).

Court painters were regularly ordered to Mulan to record the imperial hunts in these enchanting hills in paintings, and it is precisely this scenery that seems to be depicted on ‘hundred deer’ or ‘hundred fortunes’ vases such as the present piece. Several paintings of the hunting genre are known from the Italian Jesuit court painter Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining, 1688-1766), such as Deer Hunting PatrolThe Qianlong Emperor Chasing Deer, or The Qianlong Emperor on a Hunting Trip(fig. 1). His intricately composed, lively depictions of animals in idealized landscapes, rendered in a naturalistic and precise, academic painting style, clearly influenced the porcelain painters who enameled these vases.

We know from historical records that such vases were already made in the first years of the Qianlong reign, in fact they may have been designed to coincide with the re-institution of the imperial hunt. Liao Pao Show quotes an entry in the Huo Ji Dang, which contains records of work commissioned for the Qing imperial family through the Construction Office of the Yang Xin Dian, also dated to the third year of the Qianlong reign (1738), sixth month, mentioning a yangcai ‘hundred fortunes’ vase with double handles, with an order to the effect that a vase should be made to the same design, but without handles; seeHuali cai ci: Qianlong yangcai/Stunning Decorative Porcelains from the Ch’ien-lung Reign, Taipei, 2008, pl. 51, where Liao illustrates a pair of ‘hundred deer’ vases with blue handles in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, attributing them to the third year of the Qianlong reign (1738), describing the design as ‘hundred fortunes’ décor and stating that the deer are depicted in different postures, “frolicking, standing, running, eating, and drinking”.

The version without handles may, however, not have been more than a trial that was not followed up, as only one such vase without handles appears to be recorded, in the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, illustrated in the exhibition catalogueSeikadō zō Shinchō tōji. Keitokuchin kanyō no bi [Qing dynasty porcelain collected in the Seikado. Beauty of Jingdezhen imperial kilns], Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, 2006, p. 69, no. 59, together with a ‘hundred deer’ vase with blue handles, p. 68, no. 58.

‘Hundred deer’, or ‘hundred fortunes’, vases are more typically known with red-enamelled handles, like the present piece. A vase of this design in the Shanghai Museum is illustrated in Zhongguo taoci quanji [Complete series on Chinese ceramics], Shanghai, 1999-2000, vol. 15, pl. 17 and on the dust jacket. Another vase of this design from the Qing court collection and still remaining in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 85, and a similar vase with handles covered in blue enamel, also in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong. Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 338, pl. 19; another ‘hundred deer’ vase with red handles from the Grandidier collection in the Musée Guimet, Paris, is illustrated in Oriental Ceramics. The World’s Great Collections, vol. 7, Tokyo, 1981, no. 190; and one from the collection of Stevenson Burke, sold in these rooms, 8th May 1980, lot 248, was included in the exhibition 100 Masterpieces of Imperial Chinese Ceramics from the Au Bak Ling Collection, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1998.

A rare, differently laid out version of the design with only a few large deer in the foreground and many small ones in the far distance, with a turquoise-glazed inside, also of Qianlong mark and period, but probably made later in the reign, is in the National Museum of China, Beijing, illustrated in Zhongguo Guojia Bowuguan guancang wenwu yanjiu congshu/Studies on the Collections of the National Museum of China. Ciqi juan [Porcelain section]: Qingdai [Qing dynasty], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 90, together with a massive Qianlong mark and period charger with a similar design, pl. 93. 

Sotheby's, Important Chinese Art, New York, 16 mars 2016, 10:00 AM