China, Yongle period (1403-1424), porcelain meiping vase with blue underglaze decoration, h. 36 cm/14.2 in.
Estimate: 1/1,5 M€
A photo from 1930 shows the current owner's grandmother doing embroidery next to the vase: proof that it has been in this old Auvergne family for at least a century. It dates from the reign of the Yongle emperor (1402-1424), one of the greatest periods for Chinese porcelain. "It is the Ming vase par excellence," says expert Alice Jossaume. "The "blue and white" pieces from the Yongle period are more sought-after than those of the Qianlong reign, because they were the first ones of this kind made for the Chinese market and imperial court." While this color became widespread during the Mongolian Yuan dynasty (1279-1368)—after cobalt was brought into the country by merchants from the Persian Empire—the Mings took it to the height of perfection. The Yuans intended these porcelains for export, preferring monochromes as they considered the technique still poorly mastered. But the new Chinese dynasty adopted blue-and-white with enthusiasm.
The first emperor, Hongwu (r. 1368-98), still favored red, as he associated blue with the Mongol invaders, but in the following century Yongle stepped up the importation of cobalt, keen to contemplate innovative creations adorned with the celestial color. The imperial wish was rapidly granted, and his palace in the new capital, Beijing, was soon positively overrun with these pieces. The technique was also developed through underglaze painting, which made the blue stand out vividly against an immaculate white background. Although imperial marks did not exist for porcelain at that time, this vase is certainly one of the pieces produced then, probably in the Jingdezhen kilns in north-east Jiangxi (a region rich in kaolin and clay), where a rare level of perfection was achieved. As witness the extraordinary quality of this large vase (36 cm/14.2 in high) with its thick material, intense blue and delicately delineated fruit and flower decoration in two registers. Ten types of fruit are illustrated with their foliage: lychees, pomegranates, peaches, longans, loquats, wild apples, melons, ginkgo fruit, cherries and grapes. The shoulders feature twelve flowers in a lingzhi frieze, including two kinds of lotus, camellias, chrysanthemums and hibiscus. While these motifs are known from various models now in the Beijing Museum, the two-register foot—with a frieze of spiraling foliage surmounted by ten lotus petals—is much rarer. "Usually, there is only a simple frieze of petals or banana leaves," says Alice Jossaume.
While these fruits and flowers became powerful symbols of prosperity, happiness and fertility in the 16th and 17th centuries, during the Yongle period they were still used for their purely decorative qualities. Meanwhile, the meiping was an ancient form of container (the word means "vase for prunus flowers" in Chinese) originally used for alcohol. But its function changed, and it came to be used to display flowering plum tree branches. As the neck of the vase here is enameled, it is unclear if it had a lid or not and what its precise function was, though we know that these magnificent pieces became ceremonial objects as time went by.