Yongle: Court Painting for the Imperial Kilns
This dish is unique and its exquisite asymmetric 'flower-and-bird' composition, depicting a rare long-tailed bird swinging down from a branch of lychee, its beak open as it darts towards an insect flying by, is one of the finest Ming paintings on porcelain.
'Flower-and-bird' paintings can be traced back at least to the Five Dynasties period (AD 906-60) and became one of the recognized painting genres in China in the Song dynasty (AD 969-1279). They were created particularly by academy painters working for the court and were a favourite subject of the great imperial connoisseur, collector and amateur painter, Zhao Ji, the Huizong Emperor (r. AD 1101-25) himself. One of the important early examples of these vibrant nature scenes, Cui Bo's Magpies and Hare, dated in accordance with AD 1061, already displays the spirit characteristic of this genre (fig. 1).
Focusing on a small aspect out of the vast spectrum offered by nature and immortalizing a fleeting moment in time, 'flower-and-bird' paintings created with admirable realism images that had not actually been seen as such before the advent of zoom photography. While highly naturalistic, their elegant asymmetric compositions transcend simple realistic representation, however, since they are carefully staged, with unerring sense of balance.
The early Ming dynasty again saw court painters specializing in this genre, in particular Bian Jingzhao, whose exact dates are not known, but who worked for both the Yongle (r. AD 1403-24) and Xuande (r. AD 1426-35) Emperors (fig. 2). Given the close involvement of the court during this period in the production of porcelain at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, it is very likely that a court painter would have been involved more or less directly in the decoration of such porcelains.
These early Ming 'flower-and-bird' dishes are almost the only examples of proper 'paintings' – rather than decorative patterns – applied to porcelain at Jingdezhen, in the same way as court artists painted on porcelain much later, at the palace workshops in Beijing in the Qing dynasty. At Jingdezhen this was done for only a very brief period in the early Ming dynasty and, given the difficulty to fire such large dishes without warping or cracking, examples are naturally extremely rare.
The present design is unique, but ten other dishes with different 'flower-and-bird' designs are recorded:
Eight other Yongle dishes are all of barbed shape: Five of slightly smaller size (55-56.5 cm), painted with a pair of birds perched on a flowering tea plant, are preserved in the Topkapi Saray Museum in Turkey, one of them illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, ed. John Ayers, London, 1986, vol. II, no. 595 (fig. 3). Three others, smaller again (50.5-51.3 cm), are painted in a similar lively style with a bird on a loquat branch: A single dish of that design is remaining in the Palace Museum, Beijing, from the Qing court collection, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red, Shanghai, 2000, vol. I, pl. 60; and a pair from the collection of Ataka Eiichi, designated in Japan as 'Important Cultural Property', is in the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, published in the exhibition catalogue Ataka Eiichi no me. Bi no kyūdosha / The Eyes of Ataka Eiichi, Seeker of True Art, Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 2007, cat. nos. 096 and 097 (fig. 4).
Two even larger dishes of similar rounded form, but painted in a different manner, with broader brushwork, depict a pair of parrots on a peach branch: one such dish of Xuande mark and period (72.1 cm) is illustrated in Fujioka Ryoichi and Hasebe Gakuji, Sekai tōji zenshū / Ceramic Art of the World, vol. XIV: Min/Ming Dynasty, Tokyo, 1976, pls 21 and 22; p. 312, fig. 54; p. 313, fig. 64; and on the dust jacket; the other (76.5 cm), very similarly painted but unmarked, was sold in these rooms, 20th May 1987, lot 418, illustrated on the catalogue cover, and again in Sotheby's Hong Kong. Twenty Years, 1973-1993, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 74 (fig. 5). The Xuande stratum of the Ming imperial kiln sites at Jingdezhen has yielded a Xuande-marked fragmentary example of this design, reconstructed from sherds, included in the exhibition Jingdezhen chutu Ming Xuande guanyao ciqi / Xuande Imperial Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 77, as well as fragments of a large dish with another bird design, with magpies on a persimmon branch, ibid., no. F16 (fig. 6).
Compare also a barbed dish painted in a more decorative and less painterly style with a lychee branch only, without a bird, in the National Museum of Iran, Tehran, from the Ardabil Shrine, illustrated in John Alexander Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Washington, D.C., 1956, pl. 41.
Other massive dishes of comparable size (around 60 cm) and similar rounded form as the present piece are known with garden or plant motifs in the centre, often with similar fruit and flower sprays around the sides as seen on the present dish. Two such garden dishes are in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2002, vol. I, pls 39 and 40. Three garden dishes from the Ardabil Shrine are in Iran, see Pope, op.cit., pls 42-4; two garden and two peony dishes from Topkapi Saray are in Turkey, see Krahl 1986, op.cit., nos. 596-7; two such garden dishes were sold in our London rooms, 15th July 1957, lot 183, and 29th May 1962, lot 114; a third at Bukowskis, Stockholm, 24th/27th April 1984. Discarded and broken examples of large dishes with various garden and plant designs have also been found at the kiln site; see Jingdezhen chutu Ming chu guanyao ciqi / Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1996, cat. nos. 36-8.
The dishes of such large size which ended up abroad had probably been sent as diplomatic gifts to foreign courts on the ships of the great maritime explorer, the eunuch Zheng He (AD 1371-1433), who during the Yongle and early Xuande reigns embarked on seven grandiose voyages to ports throughout Asia and as far as Africa. The present dish, which is riveted with metal cramps on the reverse, may also once have been in the Middle East. The irresistible appeal of quintessentially Chinese painterly scenes such as the bird on a lychee branch of this dish is universal and transcends cultural boundaries today, as it already did in the Ming dynasty.
The extraordinary quality and size of these dishes was never matched again, not even in the Qing dynasty (AD 1644-1911), when porcelains of the greatest technical difficulty were created. Although the style of these dishes was revived in the Yongzheng period (AD 1723-35), their size was then considerably reduced; compare a Yongzheng dish in the Palace Museum, Beijing, painted with two birds on a flowering peach branch, measuring less than 40 cm in diameter, in Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2002, vol. II, pl. 200.
59.5 cm., 23 1/2 in.
The Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1991, pl. 63, also illustrated on the cover.
Splendour of Ancient Chinese Art. Selections from the Collections of T.T. Tsui Galleries of Chinese Art Worldwide, Hong Kong, 1996, pl. 50.
Christie's 20 Years in Hong Kong, 1986-2006. Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Highlights, Hong Kong, 2006, p. 64.
Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 4, no. 1639.
The Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong.
Christie's Hong Kong, 7th July 2003, lot 642.
Eskenazi Ltd, London.