The artists of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), especially those in the upper echelons of the imperial workshops, drew from a rich panoply of iconography when crafting sculptural works of art. Decorative and utilitarian forms were regularly embellished with abstract, stylized, or realistic motifs emphasizing the wonders of both the natural and mythological worlds. Even so, although images of human figures interacting with nature were especially popular subjects, works focusing on the human form alone were made far less frequently.
This brush washer, in the form of two Han boys and what is probably a water barrel, is carved out of a single pebble of pale yellow nephrite. The center of the sculpture has been drilled out to form a storage vessel that stands upright between the two boys, each of whom is firmly grasping the smooth, incurving edges of the rim with both hands. The figures are clad in standard Qing peasant clothing with ornately articulated drapery at the sleeves, waists, and cuffs. The artist has preserved the natural skin of the pebble in the boys’ tasseled hair, and the mottled hues offer a pleasing contrast to the smooth, translucent sheen of the vessel’s walls. The figures are rendered at play, each pulling away from the vessel, booted feet firmly planted on its base for support. The charm of this work is rooted in the artist’s clever balance of the composition, which, combined with his mastery of the drill, enlivens the popular theme of childhood wonder and amusement.
This brush washer, one of Trammell Crow’s favorites in the collection, appeals to his taste for small jade sculptures of animals, pets, and children—images that capture the sweet-natured sentiment of life.