88: IMPERIAL EMPEROR QIANLONG BIRTHDAY DRAGON VASE
Only floor and telephone bids are accepted. Please call our Asian Art Department if you with to bid on this item: + 1 310 770 5444 or + 1 310 424 5288. From the Private Collection of Dr. I San Lin. A magnificent baluster shape with a graceful contour, this Qianlong imperial birthday vase has an extremely fine, white, and hard body made of the best clay. The glaze is very clear without any blemish. Its surface is smooth, non-sticky to the touching fingers as opposed to the sticky glassy surface of newly fired porcelains, and is free of surface gloss of the latter. The underglaze blue is intense and pure blue like that of a high quality blue gem, and adheres to the biscuit well beneath the glaze; unlike later imitations that almost always have underglaze blue appearing to be floating on top or just beneath the glaze surface. Strokes of the cobalt blue pigment developed cleanly during firing without diffusion or smear, in contrast with many Yongzhen and early Qianlong porcelains (1). Therefore every stroke is clearly seen, showing delicately the brushwork and making the whole painting very vivid and attractive. The facial expression and the posture of the standing dragons are both ferocious and respectful in presenting the pearl of longevity to Qianlong. The Fen Sui (delicate spreading the blue pigment) technique also demonstrates the outstanding skill of Qianlong artists. By this technique, the blue color increases gradually from white to light blue, like traditional Chinese ink painted on a piece of paper. This effect is demonstrated on the dragon faces, the pearls that contain the word Shou (longevity), the horn, and the light blue beads that form a decorative band near the base of the vase. Through this stereo-effect the expression of the dragons’ faces stands out fully. It is difficult to spread so gradually and uniformly the blue pigment on a dry, non-absorbing clay surface, unless the pigment granules are very fine, the clay body is very uniform and fine, and the brush skill is superb. This skill of Qianlong artists has not been surpassed, even the King of Blue-&-white porcelains, Wang Bu of the Republic China Period, is no match, perhaps due to the unavailability of the fine pigment and clay body. This vase is decorated with fourteen bands from top down: Lei Wens, Ru Yi heads, floral patterns, Shou words, floral patterns, Ru Yi heads, Lei Wens, large Ru Yi heads, six standing dragons presenting Longevity (the main motif, celebrating Qianlong’s 60’s birthday), cicada blades of Shan-Zhou bronzes, Lei Wens, white confronting Kwei dragons in a ground of tiny blue dots, white pearls in a ground of blue dots, and Lei Wens. These bands are artistically organized without clumsiness or crowding. The dragons and accessory decorations are symmetrically and evenly divided over the vase surface. The main motifs, the dragons, are widely spreading out to contrast against the jade-like very white and delicate body. All decorations are meticulously painted with thin strokes or tiny blue dots, and densely packed in a very formal and rigorous manner. Consistent with a Chinese painting principle that painting should be so dense in the places as required so that even a needle cannot penetrate, while in other places where openness is required, the painting should be as open as allowing a wagon to run through. Viewing from every angle, the painting on this vase is extremely formal, rigorous, delicate, and beautiful. The Qianlong imperial mark is on the external base, with every stroke showing vigor, delicacy and compactness, and the blue settling deeply beneath the glaze surface. This mark is typical of the best Qianlong porcelains. In summary, the clay body, the glaze, the shape, the blue pigment, the painting, and the imperial mark of this imperial vase are the very best for Qianlong period and stands out in Chinese blue-&-white porcelains history. This vase served as an important memorabilia for celebrating the 60th birthday of Qianlong emperor. Two hundred fifty years later, this imperial vase certainly has a high value for collection. About four to five such birthday vases have survived during these years. This vase is the only one having a round body, while others have six flat faces. It is far more difficult to paint a standing dragon’s face on a curved surface than on a flat surface. Therefore this round body imperial birthday vase is indeed a treasure.