Published Sep 19 2013, by


Cloisonné—or cellular—enamels have consistently been made in China since at least the fifteenth century. Entailing an incredibly painstaking process, the design scheme is delineated in a series of flattened wires that are attached to a metal body. The interstices are filled with powdered glass (the enamel) of various colors, sometimes mixed with oil, and then the piece is fired. To achieve the desired shade, intensity, and consistency of the colors, the enameling process may be repeated as many times as needed. The final step is to polish the surface and to gild the exposed wires. The result is a stunning union of shimmering metal with vibrant, gleaming colors.

In China, the art of cloisonné reached a zenith during the eighteenth century, and the technique soon spread beyond the confines of the innovative imperial workshops of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). By the end of the eighteenth century, cloisonné had become popular for domestic goods and ritual vessels as well as for purely decorative items made for the imperial court. Imperial artists expanded the palette of enamel colors—adding a distinct pink from colloidal gold and silvery shades from tin oxide—to the previous spectrum of opaque blues, reds, and yellows that contrast with translucent greens and purples. Their successful combination of new technologies with advanced skills and innovative design quickly resulted in some of the most striking examples ever produced in the medium.

This vase survives as an example of this extraordinary artistic synthesis. Its massive, hexagonal form and complex layered construction catered to the interest of the Qianlong emperor (reigned 1736–1795) in complicated, innovative shapes. The decorative scheme is an equally bold union of newly developed techniques—here the style of enamel painting, known as guyue xuan (Studio of the Ancient Moon) and possibly transmitted from the imperial porcelain workshops—with well-established archaic motifs and a wide variety of popular imagery. Reflecting a theme of nature, magnolias and peonies, lotuses, chrysanthemums, and prunus—symbolizing the four seasons—are interspersed with archaic bi discs, an ancient ritual symbol of the cosmos resembling a coin with a hole punched out of the center. The use of sculptural decoration includes two gilded handles of stylized chi dragons adorning the gently tapering neck and six raised ruyi lappets crowning the edges of the shoulders.

The juxtaposition of the three-dimensional scenes on the body of this vase with the flat, textilelike patterning on the shoulder and neck highlight two different approaches to cloisonné enameling. For one, the colors within each cell are mixed so as to achieve a modeling effect. For the other, the patterns are carefully crafted in bright, clear colors. The recognizable presence of both on such an innovative vessel indicates that this work could very well have been made in the central imperial workshop, first established in the Forbidden City by the Kangxi emperor (reigned 1662–1722).