The exhibition ‘Venus d’ailleurs, matériaux et objets voyageurs (Coming from elsewhere, traveling materials and objects)’ opened on September 22, 2021 in the Petite Galerie of the Louvre in Paris. To the greatest happy surprise of the Qing imperial porcelain lovers, a top-tier porcelain garlic-head bottle vase painted in polychrome enamels over transparent glaze and gilding in a European style, known to the Chinese as ‘falangcai’, is shown to the general public for the first time. It belonged to Adolphe Thiers’s (1797-1877) collection and came to the Louvre around 1881.
The body of the vase is painted with a pair of red-whiskered bulbuls (Pycnonotus jocosus) and large ivory-pink flower heads. These motifs are painted in a European style, with colours similar to the palette used by contemporary oil painters in the West. Comparing the smooth toning of the highlights and shadows on the birds’ fine plumage on both the Louvre’s vase and the Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione’s (1688-1766) pheasantpainting, we may be able to see the obvious western influence on the porcelain painting. Similar methods of chiaroscuro with smooth blending of the primary colours and subtle shades were used to create believable effects of volume of the bird’s body and vividness of radiant feathers. In China, the red-whiskered bulbul is known as hong er bei (红耳鹎), found mainly in Guangdong province and Hong Kong.
Another comparison may be made between the flowers on the vase and a flower painting created by Giuseppe Castiglione. The similarities in style, palette, and shape are astounding.
There is a band of white Rococo-style scrolls reserved on a pink enamel ground around the neck of the vase. The gold rings on both edges of the band and around the mouth rim show that this vase enjoyed the highest privilege.
There are four Chinese characters ‘乾隆年製 Qianlong nian zhi (Made in the reign of Qianlong)’ on the bottom of the vase rendered in blue enamel as the reign mark.
There are six in total known similar Qianlong garlic-head bottle vases painted in the ‘falangcai’ style in the world. The Louvre vase and the vase in the collection of The Cleveland Museum of Art are adorned with birds and flowers, while the ones in the collection of Palace Museum, Beijing, in the National Museum, China, and in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, are decorated with Rococo-style flower scrolls. It seems that the Cleveland vase does not have gilding.
The findings and opinions in this article are written by Dr Yibin Ni.