Many people dream of traveling to China to learn more about that country's distinctive history, culture, food, and landscape. From the art historian and collector's perspectives, China is also well known for its production of elaborately detailed household and decorative items, including bowls, vases, and statues. Due to their quality and craftsmanship, many of these pieces can be centuries old. I was recently introduced to two of these remarkable vintage Chinese treasures at a recent New England Antique Show. I was particularly drawn to them because of their elegant cloisonné details...I can only imagine the time and talent that must have been involved in bringing these items to life.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote "Never laugh at live dragons" in his beloved book, The Hobbit. Taking that advice to heart, you can certainly at least smile at our first item which is adorned with one of these mythical masterpieces! Here we have a nineteenth century cloisonné ewer with a highly detailed copper dragon handle. Ewers are elaborately decorated pitchers with handles and flaring spouts. The ewer itself is 12" tall. Except for four decorative rings around the piece, the body of the pitcher is covered in colorful cloisonné swirls and floral motifs. Cloisonné - the art of decorating an object with ground glass that has been fired in an oven - had its origins in the middle ages but became popular as an art form in China in the 1400's. The piece has a "royal" feel to it and for good reason; the dragon is the symbol of the Emperor of China and the yellow color - the prominent background hue - is historically referred to as "Imperial yellow."
In order to truly appreciate this vase, it is important to understand the role of dragons in traditional Chinese culture and art. The exact origins of dragons in Chinese culture are not certain; some scholars say they are a composite of several different ancient totems while others feel they may be modeled on an ancient breed of saltwater crocodile that once inhabited China centuries ago. Regardless of their exact history, dragons are a symbol of power, strength, and good luck in China. Chinese dragons are also very different from European dragons, which are generally considered evil and dangerous. Chinese dragons embody auspicious and positive powers, including control of water and rainfall (which might explain why there's a dragon on this vessel designed to hold water!) And unlike their European cousins - who tend to be larger, heavier, and muscular - Chinese dragons tend to be lanky, slender, scaled, and snake-like, exactly as depicted on this elegant ewer.
It is clear the dragon ewer is worthy of an empress, and here is one to fit that bill perfectly. Here we have a truly outstanding cloisonné empress figure standing on a carved wooden base from the mid 1800's. The empress is 16" and has an ivory face and hands. She is wearing a traditional, elaborate, very feminine robe with long flowing sleeves. It is interesting to note that on her shoulders are large yellow floral motifs, possibly alluding to her societal rank. She is also detailed with an intricate headpiece and necklace; both are made from gilt silver.
Like the dragon ewer, this empress figure reflects an important element of traditional Chinese culture. The empress is holding what is called a ruyi scepter in the form of a fungus. This shapely accessory is a symbol of power and good fortune. Reference to ruyi first appeared in writings of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). Over the centuries, a ruyi has been interpreted as a ceremonial scepter, a back scratcher, and a conversation starter, among other things. Historically, a ruyi is long and narrow, has a head patterned after a fist, cloud, or mushroom, and has a S-shaped handle. Ruyi can be made from just about any material; the Palace Museum in Beijing has a collection of over 3,000 ruyi that are made from - among other things - precious metals, iron, bamboo, wood, ivory, coral, rhinoceros horn, lacquer, crystal, jade, and precious gems.
I would like to thank Jim Dolph of JSD Antiques for this beautiful and colorful introduction to antique Chinese cloisonné treasures. Jim is a lifetime collector of Asian Art and has been a dealer for 15 years. JSD Antiques carries a full line of Asian antiques primarily spanning China, Japan, India and Thailand and specializes in netsukes, ivory, bronze, cloisonné, and period ceramics. He will be showing these and other collectibles at the upcoming New England Antique Show's Cape Cod event on August 28th and 29th. For more information on the dragon ewer or Empress statue, please contact Jim directly at email@example.com.
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