Asian Art

Chinese, 1596-1674
Pair of Imperial Vases with Scenes of Children at Play, Qing dynasty, Qianlong mark and period (1736-96)
Glazed porcelain with overglaze-enamel colors
Each: 11 x 6 1/2 in. (28 x 16.5 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Moyer, 1974
AMAM 1974.80-81

With their bright colors and Western-influenced paintings, this pair of brightly colored vases exemplifies the taste for opulent and exotic objects that dominated the Qing court under the Qianlong emperor (reigned A.D. 1736-1796).

These vases represent a style of Chinese ceramics often called "famille-rose" in the West, or fencai (powdery colors) in China, which is considered by many to be the highest form of Chinese overglaze-enamel decorated porcelain. They were created from white porcelain clay that was first covered with an opaque white glaze before being fired at a very high temperature. The decorative motifs were then applied to the glazed bodies using brightly colored, famille-rose enamel pigments that were fixed to the vases by a second firing at a much lower temperature.

Famille-rose enamels were developed in the eighteenth century from a combination of Chinese and Western enamels. (Among the latter was a red pigment derived from colloidal gold, the color of which inspired the name famille-rose.) Generally purer in composition than earlier Chinese enamels, the new famille-rose enamels offered a brighter palette, greater opacity, and mixing and application qualities similar to paint. Although Chinese potters had painted pictorial designs for hundreds of years before the Qing dynasty, the invention of famille-rose enamels in the eighteenth century enabled them to decorate their wares in a much wider range of styles than ever before.1

Between turquoise fields filled with stylized floral designs, the primary decorative motifs on these vases are paintings of children at play in a garden.2 The subject is a variation of the popular "One Hundred Boys" motif that appeared on ceramics, paintings, and textiles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Because the birth of sons was highly desired in traditional Chinese culture, images of numerous boys at play were regarded as auspicious, and were often displayed around the New Year's festival to bring luck in the coming year. Several details in the paintings on these vases suggest they may have been created for just such an occasion. Both vases depict boys lighting firecrackers, a traditional New Year's activity intended to scare away malevolent ghosts and spirits. Other passages show boys fishing, another common New Year's subject, since the Chinese word for fish is homophonous with the word for abundance and prosperity. However, the fantastic garden setting, and the scenes of boys releasing mythical spirits and beasts from magic bottles, indicate a much broader theme than simple New Year's wishes, namely the innocence and magic of childhood.

The shading of the boys' faces and the relatively illusionistic rendering of three-dimensional space on these vases clearly reflect Western artistic influences. During the Qing dynasty, Western art influenced China primarily through the Jesuit missionaries who served in the imperial court. Western missionaries had first arrived in China in the sixteenth century to teach Christianity, but after they were forbidden to proselytize their religion, they instead taught the Chinese about Western science, mathematics, art, and philosophy. Among the most important Jesuits to teach in China during the eighteenth century was the Italian missionary and painter Giuseppe Castiglione, who arrived in China in 1715 and lived there until he died in 1766.3 During his fifty-one years in China, Castiglione (also known as Lang Shining) taught dozens of Chinese artists the basic techniques and principles of Western drawing and painting. Although he worked primarily as a painter at the court in Beijing, he is also known to have had contacts with ceramics decorators from the main porcelain-producing city of Jingdezhen.4 While it is highly unlikely that Castiglione personally had any hand in the decoration of these vases, they may well have been painted by a second- or third-generation follower of his style.The vases are marked on the bottom with a four-character seal reading "Qianlong yuzhi," ("Made for the Qianlong emperor"). These seals, in contrast to the more commonly seen "Qianlong nianzhi" or "Made during the Qianlong reign period," indicate that these vases were specifically intended for use in one of the imperial residences.

C. Mason


Collection Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Moyer, Sabillasville, Maryland

Given to the museum in 1974



Technical Data
This pair of vases is in excellent condition. Both vases are made of high-fired, white porcelain clay bodies decorated with overglaze-enamel colors. A four-character seal, or reign mark ("Qianlong yuzhi"), appears in blue and white on the bottom of each vase.

1. For a good general history of Chinese ceramics, including famille-rose, see Suzanne G. Valenstein, A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics (New York, 1989).

2. The same scenes are repeated in mirror image, so that the two vases form a complementary pair.

3. Among the numerous books and articles about Castiglione, see especially Michel Beurdeley, Giuseppe Castiglione: A Jesuit Painter at the Court of the Chinese Emperors (Rutland, Vt., 1971); and Orientations 19, no. 1 (November 1988)--an entire issue is dedicated to this artist.

4. Shixue, the first Chinese treatise on Western perspective drawing, was written by Nian Xiyao, director of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen. It was based on Castiglione's explanation of Perspectiva pictorum et architectorum (Rome, ca. 1693-1700), written by the illusionistic painter Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709).