National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of Vase in the Form of a Carp, Mounted as an Ewer Chinese Qing Dynasty (artist)
Vase in the Form of a Carp, Mounted as an Ewer, Yongzheng period, 1723/1735 (vase); c. 1730/1755 (mounts)
porcelain with blue celadon glaze, in gilt-bronze mount
Overall (without mount): 21.7 x 6.1 x 10.8 cm (8 9/16 x 2 3/8 x 4 1/4 in.) overall (with mount): 31.1 x 10.3 x 17.3 cm (12 1/4 x 4 1/16 x 6 13/16 in.)
Widener Collection
1942.9.443
On View
From the Tour: Chinese Porcelains
Object 24 of 24

This vessel takes the form of a carp, its grotesque open-jawed head oriented downward and its tail raised. The tail is open at the end, forming the mouth of the vase. The porcelain was transformed from a vase into a pouring vessel or ewer for decorative use by the addition of a gilt-bronze mount made in France in the eighteenth century. The mount, in the form of scrolling vegetation, forms a base and high-rising handle.

Mounted celadon fish such as this were popular in eighteenth-century France, and several examples survive.1 An outstanding comparison can be made with a pair of ewers now in San Francisco, which, however, stand on their tails and are more naturalistic in position and form.2 Double or paired fish, a common Chinese symbol for wealth, were also mounted, but with tails down.3

Both singly and in pairs, fish are a traditional Chinese motif in the decorative arts and painting. The carp is the species most often encountered. It is often found in ceramics of the Song and Yuan dynasties, and paired carp occur as a mark on the base of some Kangxi porcelains. Paired fish were one of the Eight Buddhist Emblems (or Happy Omens), and they also symbolize marital fidelity. A carp leaping from the waves is a subject appealing to the literati because it symbolizes the aspirations and struggle of the scholar for success in the imperial examinations. Jessica Rawson explores an interesting relationship of the monster-head fish with the Indian makara, a revered water spirit with a fish body and a fierce-toothed head. It is seen in early Buddhist caves at Ajanta in India. She illustrates decoration on late eighth-century Chinese silver and tenth-century Yue ware.4 Fancy fish were domesticated in China, as in Japan, but were unlike the Japanese koi. An expensive type was bred to have a grotesque face similar to the makara.

In this vessel, vertical incised lines define the tail structure. The spine is raised, and overlapping scales are shown in relief on the body. A pronounced, protruding brow ridge, bulging spherical eyes, and a rounded nose characterize the monsterlike head. Beneath these, a gaping mouth dominates the lower third of the vessel. The upper jaw bears square teeth and pointed fangs, also in relief. The lower jaw, which is mostly covered by the mount, is decorated with an emanation of scrolls. A flamelike double set of fins sweeping back from the corners of the mouth is also partly obscured by the mount. The form of the enormous mouth allows for a wide rectangular base with rounded corners. The wide foot-ring is unglazed and brown, the base glazed. The pale blue, translucent celadon glaze has a soft luster and is finely bubbled. Where it runs thin over the relief elements, the pure white of the porcelain body shows through. The glaze on 1942.9.443 is slightly more blue and very slightly thicker than that on the companion piece.

(Text by Josephine Hadley Knapp, published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue: Decorative Arts, Part II: Far Eastern Ceramics and Paintings; Persian and Indian Rugs and Carpets)

Notes

1. One exists in the Earl of Harewood collection, Yorkshire, England; also D. F. von Lunsingh Scheurleer, Chinesisches und japanisches Porzellan in europäischen Fassungen, Braunschweig, 1980, fig. 332. Several such mounted fish are noted in eighteenth-century sales records: Sir Francis Watson, Mounted Oriental Porcelains [Exh. cat. International Exhibitions Foundation, Washington], Washington, 1986, 15; Sir Francis Watson, Chinese Porcelains in European Mounts [Exh. cat. China Institute Gallery, China Institute in America, New York], New York, 1980, 55, no. 30. One of the most important purchasers of mounted porcelain, Madame de Pompadour, is recorded as having bought 150 pieces at a single shop in a short period. See Christopher Hibbert, "The Tastemaker," Connoisseur (December 1985), 110-115. A photograph on page 110 shows one of her possessions, a mounted celadon fish similar to the San Francisco pair, now at Waddesdon Manor; Lunsingh Scheuleer 1980, fig. 333.

2. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, acc. nos. 1927.165 and 166; Watson 1980, no. 30, repro.

3. Examples of double fish joined at the belly, mounted as vases or ewers, include a pair in the Forsyth Wickes collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, acc. nos. 65.2260 and 2261: Watson 1980, no. 23; and pieces in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore: Lunsingh Scheurleer 1980, figs. 329 and 330, respectively. In Beijing, a Palace Museum example is illustrated in Kangxi Yongzheng, Qianlong Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong; Beijing, 1989, pl. 141.

4. Jessica Rawson, Chinese Ornament: The Lotus and the Dragon, London, 1984, 114-116.

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