11125 A MOST UNUSUAL PAIR OF CHINOISERIE WHITE OPALINE GLASS AND POLYCHROME ENAMEL VASES Probably Russian. Second Quarter Of The Nineteenth Century. Measurements: Height: 15 3/4″ (40 cm) Width 7 1/2″ (19 cm).
Of white opaline glass and colored enamels. The ovoid body mounted by a flared neck and supported by a socle resting on a square plinth. Each vase with paired gilt and enameled handles in the Islamic taste. Each vase decorated with different vignettes depicting full length Chinese dignitaries and fanciful chinoiseries scenes to the reverse. Some old repairs to two handles.
The glass industry in Russia during the nineteenth century was characterized by technological innovation and rapid expansion. The import of foreign glass was banned1 and therefore the establishment of domestic glassworks was encouraged. The Imperial Glassworks at St. Petersburg was the leading factory in Russia, producing wares to outfit the palaces of the imperial family and aristocracy, and was unrivaled in the production of colored glass both in Russia and throughout Europe.
The extensive production of colored glass accompanied an interest in revival and exotic styles, and a range of forms and decorative motifs covering a variety of periods and styles were produced, including Islamic, Gothic, Etruscan, and Chinoiserie. For instance, the State Hermitage holds examples of opaque glass vases produced by the Imperial glassworks decorated with Iranian motifs (figure 1), while the State History Museum, Moscow, as well as a few of the royal residences, have in their collections “Etruscan” (or “Pompeian”) style glass in imitation of red-figure and black-figure vase painting (figure 2). The use of opal glass, also referred to as “milk” or “bone glass,” was particularly employed in these instances and the “opaque white glass made at the Imperial Glassworks was almost indistinguishable from the porcelain it was supposed to imitate.”2
Unlike their Continental neighbors, Russia enjoyed unique overland access to the Far East, procuring goods and sharing cultural exchanges though envoys. During the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-96) chinoiserie (kitaishchina) reached its peak; the monarch appreciated not only architecture and the decorative arts, but the political and literary contributions of China as well. The East and West cabinets in the Peterhof Palace, the Chinese Palace at Oranienbaum, and the Chinese village at Tsarskoe Selo were executed in response to the monarchy’s Eastern fantasies. According to renowned scholar Emmanuel Ducamp it is possible that the present pair of vases could have been made for the Chinese Room at Tsarskoe Selo, or another of the royal chinoiserie constructions.
The present vases combine the exceptional white glass perfected by Russian glassworks with enameled painting of Chinese subject matter, and forms related to near-eastern pottery, to produce a most unusual result. Very interestingly the figures possess a Slavic physiognomy, but are wearing traditional Mandarin garments; the seated figures in particular are dressed in the formal robes of a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) nobleman, characterized by long, U-shaped sleeves that cover the hands, a separate ceremonial shaped collar. Two examples of men’s court robes in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, dating from the 19th century, can be compared to those on the present vases (figure 3).
Clothing in China was a tightly regulated status symbol and there were many rules governing the styles, colors, and patterns one was permitted to wear. The color yellow, for example, was reserved for high-level officials and members of the Imperial family. Embroidered animals indicated your position within society, and in 1759 the emperor decreed that members of the imperial hierarchy be required to wear an identifying badge of rank. “Members of the Imperial family wore badges with dragons or phoenixes; civil officers wore birds, and military officers wore animals such as lions and tigers.”3 In addition to badges, hats, belts, necklaces, and other accessories were also indicators of rank.
On the vase depicting two men, the standing nobleman wears a hat with peacock feather, awarded on merit by the emperor. The seated man wears a beaded court necklace and holds a ruyi, a ceremonial scepter typically made of precious materials, which, in the Qing dynasty, became symbols of wealth and political power, and were often gifts to or from the emperor. A portrait of the emperor Minning illustrated in John Elliot Bingham’s 1843 Narrative of the Expedition to China, is similarly seated with several of the same accouterments (figure 4). On the other vase, a bearded man in similar attire sits in a throne chair while a woman stands beside him. Women’s robes were worn with a long neck ribbon, as seen on the present vase. The reverse of each vase is painted with fanciful tableaux comprised of a pavilion with figures apparently suspended on a rocaille platform and surrounded by silhouettes of exotic flora and fauna.
The angular winged handles of the present vases are an interesting departure from Chinese decorative arts, and instead have an apparent precedent in Islamic pottery from the 12th-15th centuries, particularly those pieces classified as “Alhambra” vases. An 11th/12th century example sold at Bonham’s London, 5 April 2011 (Lot 82), has similarly shaped low wing handles (figure 5). Glass vases of traditional Alhambra form were being produced around this time by the Imperial Glass Factory, as well as foreign glassworks like those in Bohemia.
- Asharina, N A, T Malinina, and L Kazakova. Russian Glass of the 17th-20th Centuries. Corning, N.Y: Corning Museum of Glass, 1990. 29.
- Ibid., 25.
- “Rank and Style: Power Dressing in Imperial China [USC Pacific Asia Museum].” Rank and Style: Power Dressing in Imperial China [USC Pacific Asia Museum]. Pacific Asia Musum, n.d. Web. 19 May 2015. <http://www.pacificasiamuseum.org/rankandstyle>