A fine famille-rose 'Boys at play' bottle vase, Jiaqing seal mark and period

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Lot 32. A fine famille-rose 'Boys at play' bottle vase, Jiaqing seal mark and period (1796-1820). Height  12 1/4  in., 31.2 cmEstimate 60,000 — 80,000 USD. Lot sold 612,500 USD. © Sotheby's.

the ovoid body supported on a slightly flared foot and rising to a tall waisted neck, brightly enameled around the body with a continuous scene of nine boys at play, each holding auspicious objects, in an elegant garden with ornamental rocks and flowering plants, all set between ruyi-bands, the belly, shoulder, and neck enlivened with scrolling lotus, persimmons, and sanduo against a lime-green ground, the rim gilt, the foot encircled by a pink-enameled keyfret band, the interior and base enameled turquoise, the base with a six-character iron-red seal mark within a white cartouche.

ProvenanceChristie's New York, 4th May 1978, lot 279.

NoteThe depiction of numerous boys at play in a garden, representing the wish for many sons, was a popular theme in the decorative arts of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The style of the present vase was pioneered during the Qianlong period to resemble paintings mounted between textile borders. Such vases are considered to have been produced at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen during the early years of the Jiaqing Emperor’s reign.

On the present vase, each of the nine boys holds an object potent with auspicious symbolism. One of the boys holds a ruyi scepter. The word ruyi means 'as you desire' and represents the wish for all your desires to come true.  One boy holds a spear, called a ji, in Chinese, which is a homophone for 'grade', referring to the grades in the imperial examinations. Another grasps a rod suspending a chime, the character of which sounds similar to that for 'celebration'.  The boy holding a vase (ping) with stalks of lotus (he) represents the rebus heping (‘peace and harmony’). One boy holds an instrument called a sheng, whose name is a pun on the word 'ascend', in one hand, and an osmanthus sprig in the other to symbolise the wish for literary ascendancy. Another clutches a gold ingot and a brush, representing the wish that literary success will bring wealth, and finally one boy holds a peony, which represents wealth and honour.  Furthermore, the number nine is also notable as the character jiu is synonymous with the character for ‘long lasting’, hence making it a perfect symbol of eternity. 

Compare an ovoid vase depicting a similar scene of nine boys at play between lime-green borders, sold in these rooms, 19th-20th March 2013, lot 226; and another sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 16th May 1977, lot 225. A vase of this form and colour scheme, but depicting a lively ‘Hundred Boys’ scene, sold at Christie’s South Kensington, 17th May 2013, lot 1504; another, but between turquoise bands, sold at Bonhams Hong Kong, 27th November 2014, lot 187. 

A famille-rose 'Boys at play' ovoid vase, Jiaqing seal mark and period (1796-1820)

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 A famille-rose 'Boys at play' ovoid vase, Jiaqing seal mark and period (1796-1820). Height 8 1/4  in., 21 cm. Estimate 60,000 — 80,000 USD. Lot sold 173,000 USD at Sotheby's New York, 19th-20th March 2013, lot 226. © Sotheby's.

brightly enameled round the body with a continuous scene of nine boys at play, each holding auspicious objects, in an elegant garden with ornamental rocks and flowering plants, all set between lime-green ground ruyi-bordered bands of scrolling lotus and sanduo at the shoulder and lotus scroll and persimmons round the base, the lipped rim edged in gilt with classic scrolls on an iron-red ground, the interior and base enameled turquoise, seal mark in iron-red.

Provenance: Acquired in Ohio in 1994.

Note: The shape and decoration of this present lot relates it to a group of wares produced at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen during the early years of Jiaqing's reign.  Vases in this group usually have a lantern or ovoid shape and have scenes with numerous figures set between variously-colored ground borders of lotus scrolls.

Every item that the boys painted on this vase hold is filled with symbolic meaning.  One of the boys holds a ruyi scepter. The word ruyi means 'as you desire' and represents the wish that all your desires come true.  One boy holds a spear, called a ji, in Chinese, which is a homophone for 'grade', referring to the grades in the imperial examinations. Another boy holds a chime attached to a rod.  The word for chime is qing, which sounds the same as the word for 'celebration'.  Another boy holds a vase with stalks of lotus.  The word for lotus is he, a homophone for 'harmony', while the word for vase is ping, which sounds the same as 'peace'. This forms the rebus heping (peace and harmony).  One boy holds an instrument called a sheng, whose name is a pun on the word 'ascend', in one hand, and an osmanthus sprig in the other.  Since the osmanthus represents literary success, the flower and the instrument together represent the wish for literary ascendancy. One boy holds a gold ingot and a brush, representing the wish that literary success will bring wealth, and finally, one boy holds a peony, which represents wealth and honor. 

A very similar vase to the present lot, and possibly the mate to its pair was sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 16th May 1977, lot 225.  For other examples of vases from this group see one sold in these rooms, 16th September 2009, lot 222, and another sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 7th October 2010, lot 2163.

The motif of boys at play is also seen on earlier Qianlong period wares, compare a lantern-shape vase with the bajixiangpainted on green enamel bands, illustrated in Qing Imperial Porcelain of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Reigns, Nanjing, 1995, pl. 87; and another, but between lotus blooms enamelled on ruby-red borders, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 29th-30th October, 1995, lot 756, and again in these rooms, 17th March 2009, lot 123. 

Sotheby's. Important Chinese Art, New York, 13 Sep 2017