Lot 355. A Square White Porcelain Jar with Inscribed Mark, Joseon dynasty (first half 19th century), Inscribed mark Yitonggung; 4 1/16 in. (10.2 cm.) high. Estimate USD 120,000 - USD 150,000. Price realised USD 150,000. © Christie's Images Ltd 2019.
With angled walls rising from an inset, square base to sharply rounded corners slanted inward to the base of the square, upright neck, the body decorated with a lustrous clear glaze of blue cast save for the foot rim and mouth, inscribed in Chinese characters in underglaze blue on base.
Note: With clean lines, well-defned shape, and a beautiful pale blue glaze, this exquisite small jar likely was made to contain food. Indeed, the blush around its lower section suggests that it once held food macerating in a brown sauce which imparted a subtle stain; though not original to the piece, the pinkish-buff blush, which many connoisseurs fnd appealing, enlivens the jar’s otherwise unembellished surfaces.
Written with a brush in underglaze cobalt blue, an inscription on the jar’s base reads Yitonggung 履詷宫 (or, alternatively, Ritonggung). The character gung 宫 means “palace” and in this context ordinarily would indicate a particular royal residence—i.e., the Yitong Palace; in some instances, such a name, by extension, can refer to the principal occupant of the so-named palace. In fact, however, scholars have been unable to identify either a Korean royal palace or a member of the Korean royal household known by this name, so the meaning here remains obscure. The collection of the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum, Tokyo 東京日本民藝館, includes a virtually identical small, square jar with exactly the same inscription on its base; even the style of the calligraphy in the two inscriptions is virtually identical.
A number of nineteenth-century Korean porcelains bear the name of a royal palace inscribed on the base in underglaze cobalt blue, the best-known of those names likely being Unhyeon 雲峴, which refers to the Unhyeonggung 雲峴宮, or Unhyeong Palace, where Yi Ha’eung 李昰應 (1820–1898), father of King Gojong 高宗 (1852–1919; r. 1897–1907), lived. (Better known by his royal title Heungseon Daewongun 興宣大院君, Yi Ha’eung served as regent from 1863 to 1873, during his son’s minority; he is remembered as a politician, as a government offcial, and as a talented painter of orchids.)
The unglazed lip indicates that this jar originally sported a cover, likely a low cover with short vertical sides, canted shoulders, and a broad fat top. The collection of the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum, Tokyo, includes a related eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century, small, hexagonal jar with a cover of the type just described. As the cover would have been fred in place, those portions of jar and cover that touched had to be left unglazed, as any glaze in those areas would have melted during fring, fusing jar and cover together and thus rendering the jar unusable.
The even, regular walls, fne white porcelain, and smooth, glassy glaze suggest that this jar likely was made at the kilns at Bunwon-ri, Gyeonggi province 京畿道分院里, to the southeast of Seoul, the Joseon capital. Active since the ffteenth century and long renowned for their wares, the Bunwon kilns produced the very fnest porcelains during the later Joseon period. In 1752 the offcial government kilns in Gwangju 京畿道廣州市 were moved to Bunwon-ri 分院里; a steady production system ensued and thus production reached its zenith. Declining economic circumstances led to the transfer of the Bunwon-ri kilns to private hands in 1883, however, bringing to a close the history of Korea’s offcial kilns. The Atlas of World Art (2004) has aptly characterized the work of the Bunwon kilns: “Government-sponsored kilns at Bunwon-ri, near Seoul, produced an exquisite and distinctive Joseon white porcelain for use at court and for export to China. Its undecorated cream-colored surfaces, and austere elegant shapes were thought to refect a purity of mind and moral character appropriate for Neo-Confucian patrons.”
The jar closest in style, inscription, and general appearance to the present jar is the one previously mentioned in the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum, Tokyo. Though differing in shape, an undecorated square bottle in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1979.413.3), and another in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (B60 P903), are kindred in style and date. And the fne porcelain, well-defned shape, and pale blue glaze of a cylindrical bottle with angled shoulders in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums (1991.613) compare favorably with those of the present jar.
Robert D. Mowry
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus, Harvard Art Museums, and Senior Consultant, Christie’s