A black and grey jade figure of an elephant

The elephant is superbly carved, depicted standing with the head turned sharply back to its left, with the trunk curled underneath with the tip facing forwards, the long tusks pointing back along the body, the rounded cabbage leaf-like ears protruding, and the eyes peering out towards the viewer from a mass of wrinkles. The massive legs are carved with whorls and furrows, and each has five round toes depicted underneath. The tail is flicked to the front. On its back it carries a leafy peach branch, with two large fruit, beside a single flowering stem of narcissus. The stone is of grey colour with large areas of black skin, showing particularly on the back of the neck and right ear, the tops of the peaches, and the two hind legs.

Christie’s New York, 21st September 2004, lot 97
Joshua Lionel Cowan Collection

Priestley & Ferraro, Symbol and Support. The Elephant’s Role in Chinese Art, November 2018, no. 11

A similarly stylised grey jade figure of an elephant, though smaller at just over eight centimetres in length, is in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, illustrated by d’Argencé, Chinese Jades in the Avery Brundage Collection, p.101, pl. XLIII.

The idiomatic elements of the carving, including the turned head, the baggy hide, the cabbage-like ears and the beady forward-looking eye were all established during the late Ming dynasty, and can be seen, for instance, in a painting by Cui Zizhong (崔子忠 1574-1644) illustrated by Osvald Sirén, Chinese Painting. Leading Masters and Principles, Vol. VI, plate 313 and discussed by the author in Vol. V, pp. 62, 63. The painting by Cui depicts the Washing of the White Elephant, a popular Buddhist theme. The religious status of the elephant in the painting is clearly identified by its six tusks, three on each side, but in other respects resembles the present carving. The massive boulder-like depiction of elephants continued well into the seventeenth century and can be seen on several Transitional period porcelains. Here, however, the black and grey colouring of the hide of the elephant, and the addition of peaches and narcissus, both symbolic of the New Year, suggest that the present carving, rather than representing the Buddhist White Elephant, was intended as an embodiment of New Year’s blessings. In this context, the elephant itself, 象 xiang in Chinese, represents a rebus for 祥 xiang meaning “propitious”.

Dimensions: Length: 15.2 cm, 6 inches

Date: Late Ming or early Qing dynasty, 17th century

Stock No. 1057

Price: On Request