Unleashing the Dragon: Expositions spread popularity of Late Qing Dynasty art objects

By Melody Amsel-Arieli

Objets d’art from China, which evoke the breadth and grandeur of its ancient culture and tradition, have long fascinated collectors.

During the opium wars and before the establishment of The Peoples’ Republic of China, many valuable pieces, both looted and sold, reached Western museums and markets foo-dog-torchiereoverseas.

Today, however, due to stringent Chinese trade policy designed to safeguard the remainder of its national heritage, many museum-quality or rare collectibles that date before 1911 cannot legally leave the country. Thus few authentic, high quality Late Qing Dynasty (1849-1911) antiques currently reach the international market. Because of their rarity, most are costly.

Artists of the early Qing period, those loyal to the previous Ming Dynasty, generally favored traditional techniques and subjects. Over time, however, rising levels of literacy combined with a prospering economy and cultivation of the arts, encouraged lively creativity and innovation.

Late Qing porcelain, the culmination of centuries of both tradition and innovation, encompasses a variety of styles. Many bowls, vases and altar vessels, for example, feature a pale yellowish crackled glaze. Others boast shiny, monochromatic, opaque aqua, green, copper red, black, blue or celadon (pale green) glazes.


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Porcelain ginger urns, brush pots or tea cups were often hand painted with delicate, traditional Chinese motifs like goldfish, peonies, lotus flowers, prunus blossoms, bamboo, peaches, butterflies, chrysanthemums, pheasants and other birds. Many of these densely appointed designs were worked in popular opaque over glaze pinks and purples called “famille rose.”

Since the Qing Dynasty was also known as the Dragon Throne, many of its porcelain items jade-censerportray serpentine, five-clawed, ferocious yellow or golden dragons, symbols of potent, auspicious powers. Others feature very large flowers as introduced by the Empress Dowager Cixi, a leading patron of the arts, or muted enamel-work inspired by traditional, minimalistic silk paintings. Fierce, stylized figures of traditional Chinese warriors were also popular choices.

According to Dessa Goddard, director of Asian Art for Bonhams North America, a number of Late Qing brightly colored cloisonné pieces, highly collected when introduced during 19th and early 20th century American and European World Fairs and Expositions, are still widely available on the market. They currently command “anywhere from a few hundred dollars for table top vases, dishes or figurines to six figures for large and well-executed exposition objects.” Many feature dense, intricate flower, bird or scrolled vine patterns.

Qing craftsmen also produced traditional, durable high-fired stoneware teapots, snuff bottles, vases, wine jugs and whiskey bottles, impervious to liquid.

They also sculpted in stone, coaxing book ends, plates, snuff jars, tobacco boxes, libation cups, vases and incense burners, for example, from blocks of auspicious red carnelian, soapstone, rhinoceros horn, lapis lazuli and agate. Others created complex, imaginative scenarios of auspicious monkeys, rats or peaches; fishermen astride rockeries, laden with fishing rods, sacks and strings of auspicious fish; or fathers and sons beside ducks and deer in stone.

Jade and rarer jadeite, however, which range from pure “mutton fat” white to vibrant spinach-green and symbolizes power, nobility, love and virtue, was every Chinaman’s stone of choice. Some craftsmen carved blocks of jade into finely detailed, realistic trees adorned with fruit and birds, or vases adorned with blossoms and rambling roses. Others laboriously fashioned jade pendants, pins and beads.

Late Qing sculptors also carved statues, brush pots, tobacco jars and decorative panels from wood. Their lacquered wooden table screens, which often feature decorative mixed woods, hard stone, ivory inlay, cloisonné, famille rose porcelain, feathers, marble, gilt or Lapis-lazuli-groupbrass accents, typically portray scenes of auspicious cranes, phoenixes, bats, dragons among clouds or traditional courtyard figures. Some boast four, six or eight-fold panels. Others are displayed upright on elaborately carved wooden stands. Depending on intricacy and materials, these may run several hundred to several thousand dollars.

Especially important and ornate wooden screens may command far more. The James D. Julia, Inc., 2012 Winter Antiques and Fine Art Auction, for example, offered a “rare and magnificent carved rosewood and ivory screen” depicting a birthday celebration with a gathering of immortals on cloud bands atop cranes, mounted on a rosewood stand intricately inlaid with mother of pearl foliage. Its suggested price was between $100,000 and $150,000; indeed, it sold at $138,000.

Highly detailed, carved bronze figures, depicting Buddhas, dragons, elephants and monkeys riding camels, for example, are also highly collectible. Delicate bronze amulets, earrings, pendants and scholars’ implements, too, are of interest.

Early Qing calligraphers, who were largely Ming Dynasty loyalists, favored traditional dull-black, square and shiny lines. Later artists, however, influenced by inscriptions found on newly discovered ancient bronze vessels and stone commemorative slabs developed much admired individual, unconventional styles and concepts by varying their brushes, brush strokes and the characteristics of their ink.

Bruce MacLaren, senior specialist in Chinese Art, Bonhams New York, explains, Late Qing calligraphy, like other artistic forms of that era, was most interesting and innovative. “Propelled by a blossoming intellectual movement that involved archaeology and linguistic studies, the early examples of the Chinese written language inspired artists to create new script forms and artistic expressions that evoked the past, yet were also incredibly fresh and new.”

Similarly, many Late Qing painters, instead of copying traditional, stylized masterpieces as Lapis-lazuli-groupwas done in the past, created personal, innovative, free-form designs of birds and flowers, landscapes or figurals of villagers, scholars or warriors.

Since painting and calligraphy are closely entwined in Chinese culture, their paintings often feature long calligraphic inscriptions, either traditional texts or poetry, that complement their composition. Indeed, reveals MacLaren, most artists were also well-trained calligraphers.

Hand-painted, silk or paper folding fans were also popular during this era. Because they are double-sided, they offered artists the opportunity to create facing pictorial and calligraphic designs.

In addition to the fan itself, the frame of the fan would also be decorated. Sometimes the bamboo frames would be carved with either popular motifs, or for the export market, ivory was common for the frame. The price of Late Qing fans vary widely. Currently, each commands anywhere from $500 to $50,000 at auction, depending on the artist.

The prolific output of late 19th and early 20th century Chinese artisans provided the high-quality objets d’art to satisfy the demand in-country and from the West. As reflected over the last few years with upward-spiraling prices, the demand continues to increase the world over, pushing up values.

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