National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of Baluster Vase with Dragon Handles Chinese Ming Dynasty (artist)
Baluster Vase with Dragon Handles, Wanli period, 1573/1620
porcelain with green glaze
overall: 39.9 x 13.9 cm (15 11/16 x 5 1/2 in.)
Widener Collection
Not on View
From the Tour: Chinese Porcelains
Object 2 of 24

This tall, slender vase is a more elegant and attenuated version of the customarily sturdy Ming baluster vase shape.1 It has a striking and lively profile of a continuous flowing curve. The lip is flaring, the neck long and thin. The line of the shoulder slopes to the wide body curve, which narrows gradually to a slim waist and flaring base.

The two creatures climbing the sides of the neck are descendants of Bronze Age dragons, with manes and bifurcated tails.2 Their bodies are arched, and their open-jawed heads tilt upward. Fully in the round, they are attached to the vessel at their claws, lower bodies, and tails.3

The glaze is a brilliant glossy emerald green. Originally, most of the surface was decorated in gold. So much has been lost that only here and there can a fleck of actual gold be seen. Owing to changes in surface gloss, in certain reflected light the evanescent design can be detected. A residue of the adhesive of the lost gold painting has remained on the glossy surface of the glaze. It is possible to make out floral scrolls, a scroll band at the base, lotus and water plants, and a starlike band. Gilding is a frequent addition to the surface of porcelains in the Ming and Qing periods, either alone, as in this Ming example, or in combination with low-fired lead enamels on single colored glazes, or with the famille verte and famille rose palettes. The fugitive gold on this piece leaving its imprint on the glaze provokes questions about how it was applied, but the technique is probably the same as that used for other gilt decoration.4

It is interesting to speculate on the possible relationship of this vase to kinran-de(gold-brocaded) porcelain, the Japanese term for the Ming polychrome wares elaborately decorated in gold, which were made in unofficial kilns especially for Japanese demand. There is a marked difference between this vase, with its simple naturalistic design, and the typical kinran-de ware, with its lavish decoration of close patterns combining gold with overglaze colored enamels. There is, however, a definite link to the blue monochromes and to the "mirror black" monochromes of the Kangxi period, both types that were decorated with overglaze gold painted designs.

An almost identical vase of impeccable provenance is in the Baltimore Museum of Art. It was formerly in the collections of William H. Whitridge, J. P. Morgan, and Marsden Perry.5

There are examples of this same general shape but of heavier appearance dating from as early as the fifteenth century. Wares of this type are thought to be products of unofficial kilns, which assumed growing importance in the last part of the Ming dynasty as a result of weak imperial patronage.

(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)


1. Some Ming examples are decorated with three-color glazes; R. L. Hobson and A. L. Hetherington, The Art of the Chinese Potter, London, 1923, pl. 129. There is a three-color vase of somewhat the same form, with similar dragon handles, in the collection of the Compagnie de la Chine et des Indes, Paris. Cécile Beurdeley and Michel Beurdeley, A Connoisseur's Guide to Chinese Ceramics, New York, 1974, 205, pl. 105.

2. In bronze: Freer Gallery of Art, acc. no. 57.22. Reproduced in The Freer Collection of Bronzes, vol. 1, Washington, 1967, no. 97, pl. 111, 48, pl. 91 (detail); Art of the Six Dynasties [Exh. cat. China Institute Gallery, China Institute in America, New York], New York, 1975, no. 37, repro. 61. In jade: Thomas Lawton, Chinese Art of the Warring States, Washington, 1982, 154, no. 101.

3. In Tang pottery, dragon handles are found on amphoras, with the animals' jaws closed on the lips of the vases. See, for example, Freer Gallery of Art no. 43.4: Oriental Ceramics, The World's Great Collections, 11 vols. Tokyo and New York, 1980-1982, vol. 9, The Freer Gallery of Art, 1981, fig. 22; Margaret Medley, The Chinese Potter, New York, 1976, 85, fig. 58; Metropolitan Museum of Art, acc. no. 1984.483.3: Suzanne Valenstein, A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, rev. ed. New York, 1989, 66, fig. 58.

4. R. L. Hobson (Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, London, 1915, 2: 102) believes that the process included a second firing at low temperature in the muffle kiln in the same way as that required by overglaze lead enamel. He also refers to the description of the gilding process in Tao Shuo(Description of Pottery) by Zhu Wan, published in 1774, saying, "Gold leaf combined with one tenth by weight of carbonate of lead was mixed with gum and painted on with a brush." A footnote says that Jingdezhen Taolu(An Account of Pottery at Jingdezhen), 1815, in book 9, fol. 17, verso, quotes a method considered infallible for fixing the gold by adding garlic juice to the gold mix before painting and firing. Soame Jenyns, (Later Chinese Porcelain: The Ch'ing Dynasty, 1644-1912, 2d ed., London, 1959, 84) speaks of "black oil gilding," and other writers have written of "oily" adhesives. It may be that some kind of oil was part of the adhesive formula for gold. Valenstein 1989, 168, mentions that gilding in Ming was a legacy from the Yuan period.

5. Frances Klapthor, Chinese Ceramics from the Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, 1993, 47, no. 35.

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