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A Rare and Important Blue and White Porcelain Dragon Jar for the Korean Royal Court

About the object

A Rare and Important Blue and White Porcelain Dragon Jar for the Korean Royal Court\nJoseon dynasty (18th century)\nOf massive size, with swelling shoulders balanced on a tapering lower body ending in a flared foot, vividly painted in underglaze cobalt blue with two five-claw dragons chasing a flaming pearl, each with taut body flying through spiral cloud whorls as if striding, with head erect, jaws open and flames streaming from the spine, the upright neck of the jar painted with a band of undulating foliage above a collar of stylized clouds in the shape of the auspicious fungus pulloch'o, the foot ornamented with a tall band of lotus-leaf lappets above a band of further clouds between double rings, the jar finished with a transparent glaze of silken luster\n22¾in. (57.7cm.) high; 17 7/16in. (44.3cm.) diameter


In the 1750s, Louis XV of France granted a royal warrant to the porcelain works he sponsored at Sèvres on the outskirts of Paris. Every New Year's Day he summoned favored members of the nobility to Versailles to see his latest acquisitions from the factory. One might picture his counterpart, the king of Korea, displaying this remarkable Dragon Jar with the same intent to please and to awe.

Dragons with five claws appear on works of art made exclusively for the royal family of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). The dragon is the emblem of the king, representing his power, authority and dignity. In Korean mythology, the dragon is a benevolent creature that controls the rain and clouds essential to an agrarian economy. A dragon with three claws was adopted as a popular decorative device when potters began to paint with iron-brown underglaze in the late fifteenth century. A fourth claw was added when the dragon was posed to clutch a flaming pearl, derived from the Buddhist cintamani, or "wish-granting jewel." In Daoist mythology, which inflects much of Neo-Confucianism, the official doctrine of the Joseon period, the numeral five represents the interaction of phenomena and cycles of nature with the Five Elements--water, wood, fire, metal and earth--a relationship also at work in the creation of the Dragon Jar here.

During the reign of King Sejong (r. 1418-50), the court in Seoul established its own kiln center downriver in Gwangju, an ideal site near hills for clay, forests for fueling the kilns and water for transport. With various relocations, a complex of official kilns operated in this area until 1884, when they were privatized. Court-appointed professional painters contributed the decoration on porcelains of the highest quality intended for use by the royal house or for presentation. Exchanges of art as gifts between the Chinese and Korean courts pollinated Korean artistic production, most evident in the wares painted with cobalt pigment that show strains of the imperial blue-and-white porcelains of the Ming dynasty--for the jar here, of the Jiajing (1522-66) and Wanli (1573-1620) eras--in their shapes and ornamentation. What is resolutely Korean is the spirited touch of the decoration, even at its most formal.

This massive jar was thrown on the wheel by an expert potter in top and bottom halves and joined at the mid-seam. Most large jars will sag during firing and have dislocated shoulders. This jar, by contrast, is a testament to the mastery required to achieve the symmetry of the swelling body and tapering foot that ends in a discrete flare. The jar is made of white kaolin, a clay composed of feldspar, limestone and quartz mined in the hills lining the Han River that is justly famous for its clarity and whiteness. The painting on the jar is executed in an oxide of cobalt that is ground and diluted to a grainy syrup. The pigment is poured into the tubular handle of the brush, which is squeezed at the base to release the paint onto the animal-hair tip. The superb draughtmanship of the dragons on this jar points to a member of the royal painting atelier who would make a twice-yearly trip to the royal kilns to decorate the most important vessels.

The dragons stride around the perimeter of the jar, toes wide apart as if clawing their ways through air. Flames stream from their necks, shins and spines. The bodies are taut and powerful with rippling rows of carefully articulated scales. The heads are significant for their fierceness--jaws apart in a roar, eyes bulging and intense, manes rising in high crowns, whiskers flailed. These are not the playful dragons that frolic in the clouds on many Korean jars, they are stand-ins for a king.

Korean ceramics have been prized for centuries. It is fitting that the closest known jar to the Dragon Jar here is in the collection of France's National Museum of Ceramics located in the city of the great French ceramics company Sèvres. The Sèvres jar measures 60.2 cm, very close to the present jar, and has a similar profile. The dragons have the same sense of tensile drama and majesty. Other elements of the designs also bring the jars together: the complicated cloud whorls, the foliate and cloud bands at the neck and the orderly line of lappets above the foot. The artist of both jars uses the white background in an especially effective manner, placing it in a channel of narrow blue lines so it appears to outline and form the design and as pure space to give each jar lightness despite its girth.

This magnificent jar is an imposing symbol of royal prestige.

For the dragon jar in the National Museum of Ceramics, Sèvres, see Hanguk Munwhajae Collections Coréenes du Musée national de céramique de Sèvres, France Korean Collection of Sèvres National Ceramics Museum, France (Republic of Korea: National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, 2006), pl. 104. For the five-claw dragon jar dated to the mid-eighteenth century in the Byung-chang Rhee Collection of the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka (55.2 cm; acc. no. 21763), see Itoh Ikutaro, ed., Yuen no iro, shitsuboku no katachi: Ri Heiso korekushon Kankoku toji no bi Color of Elegance, Form of Simplicity: The Beauty of Korean Ceramics from the Rhee Byung-chang Collection Uahan saek, sunbakhan hyeongtae: Yi Byeong-chang kolleksyeon Hanguk tojagi eui areumdaum, exh. cat. (Osaka: Museum of Oriental Ceramics, 1999), pl. 130; or access online at . For another jar in the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka (56.2 cm; acc. no. 20764), see also Itoh Ikutaro, Yuen no iro, fig. 64, p. 335; and Richo koki sometsuke Blue and White of the Choson Dynasty (Osaka: Museum of Oriental Ceramics, 1999), pl. 4. For the five-claw dragon jar in the Ho-Am Museum (47.2 cm), see Joseon heugi gukbojeon: Widaehan munhwa yusan eul chajaseo Treasures of the Late Choson Dynasty, 1700-1910, exh. cat. (Seoul: Samsung Art and Culture Foundation and Ho-Am Gallery; Yongin: Ho-Am Art Museum, 1998), pl. 86. Compare also the jar (52.5 cm) sold in these Rooms, 26 April 1995, lot 43, published in Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art: Traditional Art Collection (Seoul: Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, n.d), pls. 160-61.


A Rare and Important Blue and White Porcelain Dragon Jar for the Korean Royal Court


18th Century, dragon, jar, All other categories of objects, bottles, jars & flasks, porcelain, Korea, Republic of




22¾in. (57.7cm.) high; 17 7/16in. (44.3cm.) diameter

*Note that the price is not recalculated to the current value, but refers to the actual final price at the time the product was sold.

*Note that the price is not recalculated to the current value, but refers to the actual final price at the time the product was sold.