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Chinese Export (late eighteenth-century), Pomegranate

Chinese Export (late eighteenth-century), Pomegranate

  • $ 35,000.00

 Chinese Export (late eighteenth-century)
Gouache on paper
Paper size: 18 1/4 x 14 in
Frame size: 27 1/4 x 23 3/8 in
Provenance: Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Verner Reed, Greenwich, CT; and thence by descent to Mr. Samuel P. Reed, New York, NY.

The rich and hardy pomegranate originated from Persia, primarily in Iran and Iraq.  It was enjoyed freely by the Egyptians, Greeks, and the Romans. Pomegranates fell from favor for many centuries and reentered the European diet in the middle ages; and returned as a sought-after exotic import in the 16th-century. The name is believed to be an adaptation from the French term ‘pom garnete,’ which means seed apple.

In China, the pomegranate has been a mainstay in both diet and cultural significance for centuries. Culturally, it was a favored motif representative of fertility, shown in bulbous form vases and dishes commissioned to celebrate the birth of a son. With its hardy skin and lengthy-term of freshness pomegranates traveled well. Thus, the fruit itself, as well as its visual motif, made its way to Britain with the expansion of trade in the 18th-century.  

In eighteenth-century Britain, this plant was difficult to grow and was considered a prized plant by many of the notable botanists in and around London such as Peter Collinson and John Fothergill. While this import did not thrive in the cool wet climate of England it did find a place in the American colonies.  John Bartram wrote of receiving a barrel of them from Charleston, South Carolina in 1764, and tasting a ‘delitious’ pomegranate in Savannah, Georgia the following year.


This is an outstanding collection of Chinese export watercolors, illustrating lush and exotic fruits found throughout the Asian continent. One of the leading experts on the arts of the China Trade, Carl L. Crossman, has confirmed their authenticity and describes them as “wonderful examples” of early Chinese watercolors made for export. The identification of each fruit has been confirmed by Dorrie Rosen and Marie Long of the New York Botanical Garden.

The market for Chinese export watercolors grew out of the trade-in porcelain to the West. In Britain, botanical interest in the exotic botany of the world was spurred on by Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the president of the Royal Society. However, the botanical treasures of China must have been known in England well before 1750, since Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) owned a fine album of such drawings, now in the British Museum. There was a long tradition of botanical writing and illustration in China, dating back to the Song dynasty (960-1279), and the desire of Western scholars to obtain accurate depictions of unfamiliar Asian flora and fauna was easily satisfied by Chinese natural history watercolorists. The tradition of botanical painting was so prevalent throughout China that western traders were not solely reliant upon the workshops at Canton, the main trading city-port, and also obtained watercolors from other parts of the Chinese community in southeast Asia

These particularly fine examples date from the late eighteenth century and display an acute sense of scientific accuracy balanced by a strong aesthetic sensibility. It is probable that they were originally commissioned by a Western scholar or amateur gentleman-botanist curious as to the appearance of the exotic fruits of Asia.  As is typical of Chinese export watercolors of this period, each work shows the fruit with its complete vegetation and also contains a cross-section illustration depicting the interior flesh of the fruit. Each of these minutely detailed, exquisitely colored, and fully animated renderings seem ready to burst out of its compositional boundaries. Indeed, from the incredibly life-like rendering of a pineapple’s prickly scales to the emotionally charged depictions of seeds liberating themselves from their shells, it is clear that the watercolorist possessed an incredibly heightened scientific and decorative sense.

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