Period: Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Kangxi period (1662–1722)
Date: early 18th century
Medium: Porcelain painted with colored enamels over transparent glaze (Jingdezhen ware)
Dimensions: H. 19 1/4 in. (48.9 cm)
Credit Line: Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913
Accession Number: 14.40.91
On view in Gallery 200
This porcelain vase depicting the four seasons was created in China during the Kangxi period of the Qing dynasty between the years of 1662 and 1722. The vase is one ceramic object of 429 gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1913 by collector Benjamin Altman. In addition to the ceramic pieces, Altman’s Chinese art collection includes 15 rugs, 51 paintings, and 27 sculptures (Chow, 1961). Though it is larger in size, Altman’s collection has been compared to the John D. Rockefeller Chinese art collection at the Museum (Chow, 1962).
This vase is in many ways diagnostic of elements of Chinese culture, porcelain techniques, and art. According to Chow, “the Chinese porcelain of the Ch’ing [Qing] dynasty reached a peak of technical perfection during the reigns of three important emperors,” including the Kangxi emperor (1961: 10). Additionally, the vase represents the polychrome-on-biscuit ware technique known as famille verte in which the color green dominates the decoration (Wang, 2002).
In this case, the vase depicts flowers illustrating the four seasons: peony for spring, lotus for summer, chrysanthemum for autumn, and prunus (or plum blossoms) for winter. Flowers, animals, and other scenes from nature are among the most “universal symbols” in Chinese porcelain decoration, including pieces of Jingdezhen ware, such as this one (Chow, 1961). The flowers chosen to represent each season convey the passage of time; similarly, the vase itself may have been used to present gifts to friends and family to mark the change in the seasons or other special occasions (Chow, 1961). Another interesting element of the vase’s construction is its rectangular shape. Vases shaped with straighter lines, which were often seen during the Kangxi period, are thought to show a more masculine side to porcelain pieces (Chow, 1961: 10).
This vase and other pieces from the Altman collection were moved to their current location in custom-made glass cases lining the “north and south balconies overlooking the stairway in the Great Hall” in the early 1960s (Chow, 1961: 6–7).
A note about provenance
The Vase with Flowers of the Four Seasons is one porcelain item among a large collection of Chinese art bequest to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Benjamin Altman in 1913. Altman, who was born to Bavarian immigrants on the Lower East Side in 1840, created a successful department store, B. Altman and Co., in New York City in the 1860s. He began collecting art in the 1880s, and it is said he purchased “a pair of Oriental vases costing $35” in 1882, though it is unknown if this vase was among them (New York Community Trust, 2000).
(1914, January 27). Museum takes Altman art. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1914/01/27/101914233.html
Avery, Louis. (1944). Chinese porcelain in English mounts. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 2(9), 266–272.
Beurdeley, Michel and Raindre, Guy. (1986). Qing porcelain: famille verte, famille rose. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Chow, Fong. (1961). Chinese porcelain in the Altman collection. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 20(1), 5–19.
This reference was especially useful in researching this vase. Benjamin Altman’s collection is quite varied, but this Met Bulletin listed most of the exemplary pieces, including the vase, and gave crucial information for further research.
Chow, Fong. (1962). Symbolism in Chinese porcelain: The Rockefeller bequest. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 21(1), 12–24.
Christie, Manson, and Woods. (1998). Fine Chinese ceramics, paintings, jades, words of art and export porcelain. Christie’s London.
Haskell, Francis. (1970). The Benjamin Altman bequest. Metropolitan Museum Journal, 3.
Hobby, Theodore Y. (1953). Chinese porcelains in the Altman collection. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Kerr, Rose. (1986). Chinese ceramics: porcelain of the Qing Dynasty 1644–1911. Chicago: V&A Publications.
Lippe, Aschwin. (1958). The Edwin C. Vogel collection of Chinese porcelain. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 16(5), 163–168.
New York Community Trust. (2000). Benjamin Altman, 1840–1913. Memorialized by the B. Altman Fund in the New York Community Trust. Retrieved from http://www.nycommunitytrust.org/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/Benjamin%20Altman.pdf
Though this source is unauthored, it had great information about Benjamin Altman, his personal collection of Chinese artwork, and the specifics of his bequest to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the case of researching this vase, much of the information about it was illuminated by understanding its provenance. For that reason,
this article proved extremely useful.
Wang, Qingzheng. (2002). A dictionary of Chinese ceramics. Singapore: Sun Tree Publishing Limited.
This dictionary was packed with information about every type of Chinese ceramic imaginable! It was a bit tricky to navigate without previous information about the piece I was researching (for example, knowing this vase is famille verte was a huge help), but it is a great jumping off point for starting more in-depth research about ceramic types.