Lot 356. A Square Blue-and-White Porcelain Bottle, Joseon dynasty, first half 19th century; 5 ¼ x 3 ¼ x 7 ¾ in. (13.2 x 8.3 x 19.6 cm). Estimate USD 120,000 - USD 150,000. © Christie's Images Ltd 2019.
Of rectangular shape with inset rectangular base, the two side panels painted with river scenes with a scholar and boy attendant on a rock ledge on one side and a fisherman on a boat on the other side, the narrow side panels painted with a spray of plum blossoms, all painted in underglaze cobalt blue, the angled shoulder edges painted with rectangular reserves of foliate scroll and the whole applied save the foot rim with a glossy transparent glaze of blue cast.
Note: Doubtless for serving wine, this square bottle features landscape décor on its two slightly wider sides and a stalk of bamboo and a branch of blossoming plum on its slightly narrower sides. Some bottles feature landscapes on all four sides, others have bamboo or fowering plants on all four sides, and yet others, like this bottle, combine the two and sport both landscapes and beloved plants.
Koreans showed a taste for faceted bottles, vases, and jars beginning in the seventeenth century and continuing through the end of the Joseon dynasty 朝鮮王朝 (1392–1910). Long-necked bottles with faceted sides—some with six facets, some with eight—were popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while small, square bottles, such as the present example, came to the fore in the nineteenth century. Korean potters even occasionally experimented with rare polygonal shapes in the nineteenth century, including bottles of dodecahedral form, which, as the name describes, have twelve fat faces, counting the base and the top (from which the neck rises). Neither the faceting nor the number of faces seems to have held any particular meaning or symbolism; rather, such playful manipulation of form apparently was no more than an aesthetic and technical challenge that potters took pride in mastering, presumably to the delight of clients.
Korean potters began to produce blue-and-white ware 青花—i.e., porcelain with designs painted in underglaze cobalt blue—as early as the ffteenth century, in imitation of Chinese porcelains of the early Ming period (1368–1644) 明朝早期. Most extant Korean porcelains from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries feature designs painted in underglaze iron brown, but blue-and-white ware appeared in quantity again in the late seventeenth century and would dominate the later Korean ceramic tradition.
Seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century blue-and-white wares typically sport quiet foral décor, but the decorative schemes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century blue-and-white wares expanded to include a broad range of motifs, from landscapes and auspicious animals to favored plants and birds. As witnessed by this bottle, the landscape scenes characteristically feature rocks and hills in the foreground, a lake in the center, and distant mountains in the background; human fgures usually appear in the compositions, often a fsherman in a boat on the lake or an elderly scholar and his attendants walking along path at the water’s edge. The landscapes on Korean blue-and-white wares take their cue from contemporaneous Korean landscape paintings; in fact, the decoration on Korean porcelains exhibits a much greater affnity to paintings on paper and silk than does that of Chinese or Japanese porcelains.
As the bamboo 竹 remains green the year ’round, as pines 松 retain their green needles through all seasons, and as the plum 梅 blooms in winter, before donning its leaves, Chinese and Koreans group those three plants together as the “Three Friends of Winter” 歲寒三友, and they regard them as symbols of strength in the face of adversity. Whether presented separately or together as an ensemble, the pine, plum, and bamboo fgure prominently as the subjects of both painting and ceramic decoration.
The cobalt-blue of the best Chinese blue-and-white wares ranges from dark royal to navy blue, but that of the fnest Korean porcelains typically is a pale, almost silvery, blue, as evinced by the designs on this bottle. The decorative schemes on Chinese wares generally are continuous, stretching all the way ’round the vessel; by contrast, the decoration on Korean porcelains often is discontinuous, with discrete designs around a circular vessel and individual scenes on the separate sides of a square or polygonal vessel. The Korean wares’ lack of borders—or, if used, very simple borders—stands in marked contrast to the elaborate top and bottom borders characteristic of Chinese wares. In addition, as previously mentioned, from the ffteenth century onward, the painting on the best Korean porcelains closely approximates that on paper and silk.
The even, regular walls, fne white porcelain, lustrous glaze, light blue cobalt, well-composed pictorial scenes, and deft painting all suggest that this bottle 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 collection of the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA (1991.618), includes a blue-and-white bottle of similar size and form, each side of which is embellished with a branch of old, blossoming plum that is similar in style to the plum branch on this bottle. The National Museum of Korea 國立中央博物館, Seoul, has many related square or rectangular bottles, many of which are decorated with landscapes; three such bottles from the collection were featured in the museum’s 2014 exhibition In Blue and White: Porcelain of the Joseon Dynasty. An octagonal bottle in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums (1991.617), is embellished with four landscape roundels; each of the landscapes is similar in composition, style, and general appearance to the landscapes on the present bottle. Though unornamented, a 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 similar in size and shape to the present bottle and likely came from the same kiln.
Robert D. Mowry
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus, Harvard Art Museums, and Senior Consultant, Christie’s