The dish is of shallow form with a wide, flat, and lightly barbed rim. The center is enameled with a lively riverine landscape and piled hillocks where a train of over twenty oxen are being herded along a winding path. The beasts enter the foreground from the right and follow closely on each other’s heels, meandering in and out of view, a single oxcart and several herdsmen among them. Beyond the hills, thatched huts are clustered around a two-storied building with thatched roof and latticework windows, standing against a fog bank below the distant peaks. Leafy trees, grasses, and low shrubs suggest an autumnal scene. The drawing of outlines and details and the application of texture strokes and colors–various shades of greens, reds, yellow, and dramatic blue—are careful and refined. On the rim, a formal arrangement of decorative motifs contrasts to the naturalism of the central scene, while the floral designs within the six elongated partial ogival panels–including camellia, daisy, orchid, peony—are themselves quite naturalistic. The panels alternate with semi-foliate motifs, all reserved on a finely drawn iron-red diaper ground. The reverse is undecorated with an underglaze-blue character, Zhu Yuan (?), within a double underglaze-blue square and double ring. The unglazed foot rim is incurved and is encircled by a thin pale orange line where the glaze meets the unglazed body. Chatter marks and pinholes are visible in the white glaze on the base.
The bucolic scene, suggestive of an idealized agrarian life, is in great contrast to compositions that are dominated by symbolic motifs rather than more purely naturalistic and representational ones. The ability to conceive of and create such a complex, well-integrated and compelling picture—with depth, perspective, and three-dimensionality and further imbued with a seasonal air—is a result in part of the profound influence of the art of painting on the ceramic decorator. Even the brushstrokes—the stringy, repetitive lines known in the world of painting as hemp-fiber cun (texture strokes) and the effective dotting (the dian of the painter) were essential in bringing the forms into full being. So effective was the translation of silk, satin, and paper painting techniques to porcelain that a “Master of the Rocks” was christened to account for such artistic achievements.
Woodblock illustrated books were essential guides for ceramic decorators. For example, pages of the Gengzhi tu, an illustrated treatise on the production of rice and silk production of the Kangxi period could well have been at hand for this famille verte creation (fig. 1), while there are also correspondences with images from a late Ming period edition of the Tangshi huapu (fig. 2) and the 1638 Ruishi liangying (fig. 3).
The mark on the present dish appears on a number of other published examples including those in the Shanghai Museum that are also stylistically related to the present, sharing with it both delicacy of touch and also richness of design (figs. 4-7). The mark is likely the logo of a private workshop in Jingdezhen, one operating outside of the imperial system, where creativity and talent were in bountiful supply.
Fig. 1: Woodcut illustration from the Genzhi tu, “Pictures of Tilling and Weaving,” Qing dynasty, Kangxi period, late 17th century A.D., after Sheila Keppel, Meaning and Prototypes in Chinese Transitional Porcelain Design, unpublished MA thesis, University of California Berkeley, 1986, p. 54e, p. 107.
Fig. 2: Woodblock illustration from the Tangshu huapu, Ming dynasty, Wanli period, late 16th-early 17th century A.D., after Zhongguo gudai banhua congkan, 2nd series, vol. 7, Shanghai, 1993, p. 303.
Fig. 3: Woodblock illustration from Jin Zhong, Ruishi liangying, dated A.D. 1638, after Zhongguo gudai banhua congkan, 2nd series, vol. 9, Shanghai, 1993, p. 619.
Fig. 4: Famille Verte dish, Qing dynasty, Kangxi period, late 17th-early 18th century A.D., Shanghai Museum, after Kangxi Porcelain Wares from the Shanghai Museum Collection, Shanghai, 1998, no. 115-1 (n.p.).
Fig. 5: Mark on base of dish in fig. 4, after Kangxi Porcelain Wares from the Shanghai Museum Collection, Shanghai, 1998, no. 115-3 (n.p.).
Fig. 6: Famille Verte dish, Qing dynasty, Kangxi period, late 17th-early 18th century A.D., Shanghai Museum, after Kangxi Porcelain Wares from the Shanghai Museum Collection, Shanghai, 1998, no. 116-1 (n.p.).
Fig. 7: Mark on base of dish in fig. 6, after Porcelain Wares from the Shanghai Museum Collection, Shanghai, 1998, no. 116-3 (n.p.).