A magnificent very rare large blue and white ‘dragon’ jar, guan, Xuande four-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1426-1435)

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Lot 3012. A magnificent very rare large blue and white ‘dragon’ jar, guan, Xuande four-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1426-1435). Estimate HK$60,000,000 – HK$80,000,000 (US$7,500,000-10,000,000)Price Realized HK$158,040,000 ($20,447,642). Photo Christie's Image Ltd 2016. 

The vessel is boldly painted in underglaze blue with a powerful five-clawed dragon amidst scrolling clouds, below four monster masks and a four-character Xuande mark written in one horizontal line on the shoulder. The neck is decorated with a band of clouds and the foot is surrounded by a petal border. 19 1/8 in. (48.5 cm.) high

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A magnificent very rare large blue and white ‘dragon’ jar
Rosemary Scott
International Academic Director Asian Art

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This monumental dragon jar comes from a private French family collection. It was passed by descent through the family to the current owner, a distinguished Swiss lady. The jar was in the collection of her grandmother, Mrs. M. Legrand (1883- 1978), who lived most of her life in Paris but was originally from Northern France. Mrs. Legrand had herself inherited the jar in 1926. The jar was passed to Mrs. Legrand’s son (the current owner’s uncle – 1908-1997) and appears in an inventory of 1981. It was inherited by the current owner from her uncle, following the latter’s death in 1997. In the present owner’s home the jar until recently stood in the hall and held walking sticks. For this latter use, the jar was protected by a fitted metal liner, which can clearly be seen in a contemporary photograph.

The jar was made in the reign of the Xuande Emperor (1426-35), a period which is generally regarded by connoisseurs as the highpoint of Chinese blue and white porcelain production. In this reign enthusiastic imperial patronage, technical ingenuity, and inspired artistry combined to create some of the most impressive blue and white porcelain vessels in China’s long ceramic history.

Production at the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen was considerable in the Xuande reign, and it has been estimated that at one time there were 58 kilns working for the court. The Da Ming Huidian (大明會典Institutions of the Great Ming Dynasty) notes that in 1433 some 443,500 items of porcelain with dragon and phoenix decoration were made for the court. Records also state that in 1430 a request was made to increase production, but that this was then deemed too wasteful and production ceased in the 9th month, and did not resume until 1433. Thus there appears to have been a two year gap in production. Since the Xuande reign is only ten years long, this means that all the wares now preserved in international collections were produced in an eight year period, which is quite remarkable. 

There was strict quality control at the Imperial kilns in the Xuande period. Indeed the reason that there have been such rich archaeological finds from the Xuande strata at the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, is because if a piece failed to satisfy the rigorous criteria for acceptance by court officials, it was deliberately broken and the pieces thrown into a waste pit. The quality and variety of the porcelains made for the Xuande emperor are a testament to his patronage. The body of Xuande porcelains was low in calcium and high in potassium, which facilitated an increase in translucency. The glaze was rich and lustrous, while the underglaze decoration demonstrated complete mastery of painting in cobalt on a porous porcelain body. The painting of dragons, such as that on the current vessel, was particularly powerful in the Xuande reign, and many connoisseurs would argue that it has never been surpassed. The Xuande reign is unusual for the fact that both large and small pieces were equally well made. The range of shapes was also considerable, and historical texts mention so many forms produced in this period, that it has not yet been possible to identify all of them. Those Xuande porcelains that have survived in international collections, or have been excavated, range from large fish bowls and large jars, such as the current vessel, to tiny bird feeders.

While a limited number of Yongle porcelains bore marks in an archaistic seal script, the porcelains of the Xuande reign more frequently bore reign marks in regular script. The placement of reign marks on Xuande porcelains was very variable - under the rim, inside the vessel, on the base, or on the shoulder, as on the current vessel. The format of the marks also varied. Sometimes these were written inside a double circle; sometimes unframed; sometimes written in a single horizontal line; sometimes in one or two vertical lines. In some cases the reign marks contain four characters, as on the current jar, while more often the reign marks contain six characters. Some scholars have suggested that the style of the majority of the reign marks on Xuande porcelains was based upon the emperor’s own calligraphy. This seems to be borne out by comparison of the xuan 宣and de 德 characters inscribed on a painting by the emperor - Dog and Bamboo (dated by inscription to 2nd year of Xuande [1427] and now in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City) - with the characters as they appear on porcelain. However there is also a limited number of pieces, predominantly stem bowls, on which an archaistic seal script was used for the reign mark.

The current large jar belongs to one of two small groups of imperial vessels with four character Xuande marks, which appear to have been made for special occasions. All the vessels in these groups are unusually large and all are decorated with powerful dragons amongst clouds and masks. On one group the dragons have five claws, like the current jar, and on the other group the dragons have three claws. On the latter group the dragons face forwards, while on the group to which the current jar belongs, the heads of the dragons, twist around to face backwards. Two vessels are particularly close in style to the current jar. These are two meiping vases from the collection of William Rockhill Nelson (1841-1915) in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (fig. 2), which were included in An Exhibition of Blue decorated Porcelain of the Ming Dynasty at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1949, exhibits 48 and 49 (illustrated The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art – A Handbook of the Collection, New York, 1993, p. 66). This pair of meiping vases shares all aspects of the current jar’s design. They are large (54.4 cm. high), the style of the lotus petal band around the foot is identical to that on the jar, the style of the clouds is the same, the shape and paintings style of the dragon – including the five-claws and the turned back head – and the style of the masks on the shoulder, as well as the rendering of the four-character marks are also the same on all three vessels. It seems entirely possible that the current jar and the pair of meiping in Kansas City once formed a set, which was made for a special imperial ritual or ceremony.

Pair of Vases, Chinese, mark of Xuande reign (1426-1435), Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

Fig. 2 Pair of Vases, Chinese, mark of Xuande reign (1426-1435), Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Porcelain with underglaze blue decoration, 21 ¾ x 11 ½ inches (55.3 x 29.2 cm). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 40-45/1, 2.

Two other large jars with similar decoration have been published. These represent the second group. One is in the collection  of the Metropolitan Museum, New York – height 48.3 cm. (fig. 3) (illustrated by A. Hougron, La céramique chinoise ancienne, Paris, 2015, p. 96) and the other was sold by Sotheby’s on 15th December 1981, and is now in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo (fig. 4) (illustrated in Chinese Ceramics in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1987, colour plate 169). This jar is 51.7 cm. in height. The jar in the Metropolitan Museum is illustrated and discussed by Geng Baochang in Ming Qing ciqi jianding (耿 寶昌, 明清瓷器鑑定), Beijing, 1993, pp. 53-4, fig. 96, where Professor Geng mentions a similar jar in a Western European collection. The Metropolitan and Idemitsu jars differ from the current jar and the pair of meiping in the form of the petal panels around the foot, the fact that the dragons have only three claws and face forwards, and the fact that the masks do not have the horizontal extensions on the mane seen on the current vase and the pair of meiping.

Blue and white ‘dragon’ jar, guan, Xuande four-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1426-1435)

Fig.3 Blue and white ‘dragon’ jar, guan, Xuande four-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1426-1435). New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Porcelain painted in underglaze blue, H. 19 in. (48.3 cm); Diam. 19 in. (48.3 cm). Gift of Robert E. Tod, 1937. Inv. 37.191.1 © 2016. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resources/Scala, Florence.

Blue and white ‘dragon’ jar, guan, Xuande four-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1426-1435)

Fig.4 Blue and white ‘dragon’ jar, guan, Xuande four-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1426-1435). Collection of the IDEMITSU Museum of Arts.

The current jar has a distinctive firing mark on its base – a cross-shaped mark left by the setter on which it was placed in the kiln. These cruciform marks appear on a number of large jars and planters excavated from the Xuande strata at the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, as well as on the Idemitsu jar (fig. 5). In particular such marks can be seen on the unglazed bases of two large blue and white covered jars excavated in 1982, illustrated in Chang Foundation, Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, op. cit., nos.1-2 and 1-3, and on a large white-glazed covered jar, also excavated in 1982, and also illustrated ibid., no. 2. It seems probable that, due to their large size and the thickness of their bases, the potters at the Imperial kilns thought it prudent to raise the vessels a little in the kiln, in order to allow better circulation of air around them during firing, and minimize the likelihood of cracking.

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Fig.5 Base of the Idemitsu dragon jar

ProvenanceMrs. M. Legrand (1883- 1978), Paris, inherited circa 1926
By descent to the present owner’s uncle (1908-1997)
Bequeathed to the present owner and consignor, 1997 

NotesThe portrayal of the dragon painted on the current blue and white jar is astounding in its sophistication and maturity. Its fierce countenance is imbued with a sense of agility and gravity. The dynamic depiction of the dragon with its head turning backwards and two powerful open claws appears to an early variation of the forward-facing dragon found on blue and white ceramics developed from the Yuan period. The inspiration of this unusually portrayed dragon probably originated from Southern Song paintings such as those by Chen Rong (circa 1200-1266). Compare with two paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston by Chen Rong, the first is a striding three-clawed dragon with curled neck at the beginning of the handscroll, Silongtu, ‘Painting of Four Dragon’, see the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, accession no. 14.50. The second painting is entitled, Jiulongtu, ‘Painting of Nine Dragons’ which depicts a four-clawed dragon glancing backwards, illustrated by Zhang Hongxing, Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900, London, 2013, pp. 198-199, no. 38. The dragon on the current jar is closely related to the dragons painted by Chen Rong in both style and spirit. The additional short spiky bristles in front of tufts of long flowing hair at the elbows of the dragon on the current jar have not been seen before on porcelain of the previous dynasties, but they appear on Chen Rong’s dragons. Also, the dragons appearing in the Jiulongtu are each depicted with its neck flexed and tail extending, using the tension around the neck to indicate movement. The juxtaposition of tension and ease, movement and stillness, is akin to the dragon painted on the current jar. Chen Rong’s dragons have been widely revered and imitated since the Song and Yuan periods, and the Xuande Emperor as an avid art patron and competent artist would have welcomed this influence on Imperial wares. 

Potters have already mastered graduating blue tones on blue and white wares in the Xuande period. Connoisseurs of porcelain state that ‘Xuande blue and white is the most prized, as it has the most variations in colour tones, and is superior in its spontaneity’, see Taipei Palace Museum, Special Exhibition of Hsuan-te Period Porcelain, Taipei, 1980, introduction. Its consummate artistic skill is on a par to that of ink paintings. The three main motifs on the current jar – dragon, monster masks and clouds – are all painted with varying tones of blue in bold and steady ink strokes. The outlines are painted using a paler blue, the colouring is done with a darker blue, while the shading is done again with a paler blue, each with great effectiveness. Take the dragon for example, each of the scales is painted with a faint outline and infilled in a darker blue to denote their overlapping structure. The sizes of the scales, their directions and densities change according to the thickness of the body and its movement to successfully impart a sense of realism, and to create pictorial tension. The mane and bristles of the dragon are similarly painted by darker outlines on top of a light blue shading to created depth and density. The white areas of the eyes and the claws have light blue shading to denote volume.  

This ability to adapt painting techniques to different subjects is even more evident on the painting of the monster masks. The light blue shading underneath the mane suggests a finer coating of hair below, making the animals come to life. Similar animal masks can be seen on the gilt-silver sword guard dating to the Yongle period, from the collection of the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, England, and included in the exhibition catalogue, the British Museum, Ming: 50 years that changed China, London, 2015, pp. 152-153. It is possible that this motif is symbolic of Imperial martial power.  

One of the highlights on the current jar is the scattered cloud scrolls. They have been strategically placed and shaped according to the space available, a device not only fills a void but is also aesthetically pleasing. The cloud scrolls between the four animal masks are particularly creative, breaking up the monotonous symmetry of the masks. Just like the dragon and the animal masks, the cloud scrolls are painted utilizing fully the contrast between lighter and darker shades of blue. For example, the X-shaped cloud scroll above the rear leg is painted with a dark blue outline and a darker blue centre, followed by a light blue shading in-between. The use of darker and lighter blue tones is more commonly seen on Xuande dishes or stem bowls painted with dragon-and-wave patterns. It is very unusual to see such delicate techniques employed on a large jar and as such is a testament to its rarity.