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Past exhibition

Special Exhibition
The Mystery of the Jintai Cloisonné Unveiled
The tradition of Jingtailan (the blue of the Jingtai era) refers to the technique of creating designs on vessels using colored enamels held in place within partitions formed by metal strips or wires, the process being repeated to fill in the gaps left by shrinkage during firing. This technique reached China in the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) from Byzantine via the Islamic world. 17th-century connoisseurs claimed the cloisonné produced during the Jingtai reign (1450-1457) of the Ming dynasty to be superior, thus giving rise to the term Jingtailan to mean cloisonné enamel. However, authentic Jingtai period cloisonné wares remain elusive, and the emergence of a large number of cloisonné enamels bearing apocryphal Jingtai marks to meet the demands of the antique market has created an extra barrier to more precise dating.
The Qianlong emperor (r. 1735-1796), known as a great patron of the arts, attempted to collect cloisonné wares made during the Jingtai period. But rather than obsessing over the rare Jingtai wares, he was even more keen on commissioning court craftsmen to produce new cloisonnés according to his own tastes. Many unprecedented forms were thus created, leading to a golden age of cloisonné.

1. The Legendary Jingtai Cloisonnés: A Renowned Cloisonné of Unsurpassed Excellence

Jingtai was the reign title of Daizong(r. 1449-1457), the seventh emperor, of the Ming dynasty whose rule proved short-lived, lasting only seven years. In 1456, the connoisseur Wang Zuo (active in the first half of the 15th century) praised the sophistication and elegance of cloisonné wares commissioned by the Jingtai court, and 17th-century antique dealers rated Jingtai cloisonné enamels as precious treasures to rank among Xuande incense burner, Chenghua porcelain, and Yongle lacquerware. The reputation of Jingtai-period cloisonnés spawned masses of copies also bearing the Jingtai reign mark. Painstaking academic research is at last gradually unveiling the mystery shrouding the authentic Jingtai cloisonnés.

(a) Unpacking the Legend: Dating Production and Reign Marks
Cloisonné enamels produced during the same period often share the decorative motifs popular at that time. Similarities in enamel coloring, wiring techniques, and materials used can also provide clues as to when the objects were made. A survey of such details shows that cloisonné enamels bearing Jingtai reign marks were in fact very diverse and attributable to different eras.

(b) Birth of the Legend: Hype Created by Antique Dealers

With the boom of the antique market in the 17th century, a myriad of “Jingtai” cloisonné enamels also emerged. While these pieces were not authentic, they reflect how, through this fanatical revival of past glories, late Ming people imagined the elusive Jingtai cloisonnés.

(c) Collector and Connoisseur: The Qianlong Emperor
A renowned lover and collector of the arts, the Qianlong emperor often commissioned imperial craftsmen to make new mounts and fittings for artifacts or left grades inscribed on them. He also ordered the production of cloisonné enamels modeled after antique pieces.

2. The New Qianlong Style: The Creation of Court Cloisonné Enamels
Most surviving cloisonné enamels were produced during the Qianlong period, the Qing Empire’s most prosperous era. Cloisonnés made during Qianlong’s reign became renowned for their splendid colors and exquisite gilding that rival earlier works and may even surpass Jingtai wares, thus earning them their place in the emperor’s curio boxes, curio cabinets, and the Duanning Hall in the Forbidden City. Although the Qianlong emperor never got to the bottom of what Jingtai cloisonnés really was, he nonetheless reshaped the art of cloisonné enamel during his lifetime.

Cloisonné Enamels in Curio Boxes, Curio Cabinets, and the Duanning Hall
The origin of Qing dynasty curio boxes can be traced back to the Ming literati tradition of artwork appreciation. Bigger cabinets or chests containing artifacts were known as baishijian, or “container of a hundred curios”. The Qianlong emperor enjoyed playing with the treasured pieces in the boxes and cabinets, and he also selected some cloisonné enamels for collection in the Duanning Hall.
While the Qianlong emperor did not leave behind records detailing his criteria of appreciation, the cloisonnés selected for collection do provide clues to his preferences and aesthetic standards. The cloisonnés presented in this section were previously stored in the emperor’s curio boxes, cabinets, and the Duanning Hall, and come under three major themes.

(a) Splendidly Colored Cloisonnés of Archaistic Forms
Under the instructions of the Qianlong emperor, the imperial workshop followed ancient bronzeware catalogues and produced cloisonnés with archaistic forms. The emperor was particularly partial to animal-shaped bronzeware and flamboyantly colored animal masks, hence the many cloisonné enamels with such characteristics.(a) Splendidly Colored Cloisonnés of Archaistic Forms
Under the instructions of the Qianlong emperor, the imperial workshop followed ancient bronzeware catalogues and produced cloisonnés with archaistic forms. The emperor was particularly partial to animal-shaped bronzeware and flamboyantly colored animal masks, hence the many cloisonné enamels with such characteristics.

(b) The Style of Court Living
During the Qianlong reign, many court furnishings and ritual objects were produced in cloisonné rather than more fragile materials. These cloisonné enamels are decorated with neatly arranged motifs, which is typical of the period. The ubiquitous cloisonné ware of the Qianlong court created a new fashion in the art of living.

(c) Blend of Manchu, Mongolian, Chinese, and Western Aesthetics
One innovation of the Qianlong period was the production of cups, dishes, and flasks that combined Western painted enamel decoration of landscapes or figures with cloisonné techniques. These fusion artifacts are the culmination of the encounter among nomadic Manchu and Mongolian, traditional Chinese, and missionary-imported Western cultures.
Exhibition Information
  • Event Date 2022-04-01~2024-05-19
  • Location 2F S201
14th century
Cloisonné enamel gu-shaped vase with Jingtai mark
The vase is modeled after the ancient gu-shaped bronze ware. Despite the inscription “Made in the Jingtai reign of the Great Ming”, carved in relief on the bottom of the vessel, “Jingtai marks” on Chinese cloisonné enamel ware were often added later and should be viewed skeptically. In its enamel colors and its shape, this vase resembles another in the collection of the Musée des Arts décoratifs in France, and it is believed that the latter was made in the Yuan or early Ming dynasty. Early cloisonné enamel ware imitated ritual bronzes, which formed part of the emperor’s religious patronage. For these reasons, this work is likely part of a five-piece altar set (wugong), consisting of an incense burner, two gu vessels, and two candlesticks, used in Yuan and Ming rituals.
15th century
Cloisonné enamel basin with lotus motif and Jingtai mark
The scrolling lotus design with full blooms was a favorite motif around the Xuande period (1426-1435) of the Ming dynasty. The enamels used during this period were mostly opaque, with the exception of the dark green. While the enamels on this basin have darkened with time, its stylistic features are in line with works made during the first half of the 15th century. The ring foot, beast claws and auspicious beasts around the mouth, and the inscription “Made in the Jingtai reign of the Great Ming” inside the ware were likely added after the 17th century.
15th century
Cloisonné enamel case with lotus motif and Jingtai mark
Scholars posit that of all the Jingtai-period cloisonné enamel objects in the National Palace Museum collection, this case is the piece most likely to be authentic. The design motif of the base centers on interlocking lotuses. In China, the lotus has always been a prominent Buddhist decorative motif, and the fact that the case originally contained a string of wooden prayer beads further strengthens its connection with Buddhism.
remodeled in the 17th century
Cloisonné enamel hu-zun vessel with lotus motif and Jingtai mark
It is believed that this type of hu-zun was remodeled from old vessels during the Kangxi period (1662–1722) to create “Jingtai-style cloisonné enamels”. A combination of the lower part of a hu and the upper part of a zun, this piece can be divided into four layers, with each layer decorated with a different motif and enamel palette. The foot has three bands of cloud patterns in different colors. The presence of decorations inside the vessel and styles from different periods on the same piece indicates that this vessel was remodeled by combining several existing works.
second half of the 17th century
Cloisonné enamel vase with lotus motif
Attached to the vase is an auspicious beast gazing into the distance, and the incised Buddhist vajra patterns on the base increase the likelihood that this vase was a ritual object. In a ceremonial portrait painting showing a Chinese couple seated in front of an altar table dating from the 17th century, a vase with an auspicious animal attached to it is depicted on the table, hinting as to its purpose.
14th century
Cloisonné enamel tripod incense burner with lotus design
Few works from this period have survived, and this piece is exceptional for its exquisite cloisonné technique and the quality of its enamel; nevertheless, the emperor had the character yi (B-grade) inscribed on the base of the rosewood stand which was added during the Qianlong period, indicating that the piece was regarded as less superior. This is probably due to the fact that the burner’s decorative motifs were not inspired by ancient bronze ware or that it does not bear a Jingtai mark.
Qianlong period, Qing dynasty
Cloisonné enamel dou container with animal designs
The form and decorative motifs of this piece were inspired by a Zhou dynasty dou container featured in the 29th juan (fascicle) of the Xiqing Gujian (Illustrated Catalogue of Bronzes in the Imperial Court), making this work a perfect example of the Qianlong period imperial workshop modeling cloisonné enamels after the vessels in an illustrated catalogue. However, unlike the freer composition of the Zhou piece, the animals on this dou are uniformly proportioned and neatly arranged, yielding a less vivid depiction.
Qianlong period, Qing dynasty
Cloisonné enamel zun vessel on lion
This left-facing lapis blue lion bears a zun vessel on its back. This form was an imagined bronze vessel depicted in later catalogues. The zun is ornamented with cloisonné lotus motif and plantain leaf shapes. The face and tail of the lion are incised, its body decorated with cloisonné pale blue wing shapes, behind the neck a row of ruyi scrolls, and on the feet the flame motif. The inscription “Made in the Qianlong reign” can be seen on the lion’s neck.
Qianlong period, Qing dynasty
Cloisonné enamel duck zun vessel
This piece is modeled after the ancient bronze duck zun vessel. The fine cloisonné reserves of the feathers create a vivid and realistic depiction. The enamel palette of blue, green, and yellow is soft and muted. The opening in the duck’s beak indicates that the vessel may have been used for pouring liquid. According to the Xuanhe Bogu Tu (Illustrations of Antique Objects from the Xuanhe Period), the duck zun vessel is not among the ritual vessels listed in Zhou Guan (The Rites of Zhou) but was to be used as a wine vessel at feasts. Since the duck is an elegant water bird, the duck-shaped wine vessel connotes the idea of gentlemen drinking in accordance with etiquette. Poets also use the duck imagery to exalt peace and as a reminder for moderate drinking.
Qianlong period, Qing dynasty
Cloisonné enamel double-ram zun vessel
This cloisonné enamel double-ram zun vessel (Exhibit II-18), the only surviving piece of its kind, was modeled after a type of bronze vessel from the Shang and Zhou periods, as illustrated in a late Ming catalogue. The splendid colors of this piece showcase the ingenuity of the craftsmen commissioned by the Qianlong court, while the order to use an ancient bronze as prototype indicates the emperor’s admiration for archaic aesthetics.
Qianlong period, Qing dynasty
Cloisonné enamel Bumpa vase
The word bumpa or pumpa denotes a vase with a spout used in Tibetan Buddhist rituals and “empowerments”. Decorated with interlocking lotuses, flowers, and plantain blades, this colorful vessel is brilliantly gilded. On the base is the “Made in the Qianlong reign” inscription.
Qianlong period, Qing dynasty
Cloisonné enamel yao vessel with lotus design
The yao is a small cooking pan with a handle and spout, and many vessels of this form were produced during the Qianlong period. Splendidly colored with exquisite wiring and decorated with lotus blooms and tendrils, this piece was originally stored in a case in Duanning Hall in the Forbidden City.
Pair of urns with painted enamel decoration of Western figures on porcelain
Set with cloisonné enamel necks, feet, and lids, these two urns have globular bodies painted with Western figures on the front and landscapes on the back. On the base of one urn is the inscription “HENRY 28” and on the other “FRANCE”. A similar work made an appearance in the auctions market, carrying the 1753/54 logo of the French porcelain maker Manufacture de Vincennes and the signature of the artist “P. Roche”. The two urns share several stylistic features with contemporary Vincennes porcelain: delicate brushwork in the figures, landscapes, and flowers, as well as monochrome background to create depth and magnificent golden decoration around the edges. The fact that many Western-style cloisonné enamels in the Qing court also have painted decorations of ladies, flowers and birds, and monochrome landscapes, may be attributed to the influence of Vincennes porcelain.
Qianlong period, Qing dynasty
Gold cloisonné cup and saucer with painted enamel designs of flowers and birds
This cup and saucer set was created using the techniques of cloisonné and painted enamel. The gilded cup with cloud-form handles is enameled overall with flowers and tendrils on a blue ground. Most of the cup and saucer sets of similar forms in the Qing court collection are made with the champlevé and painted enamel techniques, hence the rarity of this set.
Qianlong period, Qing dynasty
Cloisonné mdong-mo ewer with painted enamel designs
While modeled after the monk’s cap, Mongolian dongbu pot, and the Tibetan mdong-mo tea churn, this ewer is only for serring tea and cannot be used for churning. This was a new design combining Western techniques with Mongolian and Tibetan characteristics.