Chinese - Mat Weights: Bears, about 206 BC - 9 AD

Chinese

Mat Weights: Bears, about 206 BC - 9 AD

Bronze with traces of gilding, 15.5 cm (6 1/8 in.) height

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Object details

Accession number

S15w15.1-2

Provenance

Possibly discovered in 1900 in Xi'an county, China
Collection of a Mr. Ting, a collector in Weixian (Shandong province), 1900 - September 1913.
Collection of Marcel Bing (died 1920), a dealer in Chinese and Japanese art, Paris, 1913.
Purchased by Isabella Stewart Gardner from Marcel Bing, Paris for $30,000 in February 1914 through Bernard Berenson. Paid for in full in January 1916. (as late Zhou, Qin, or Han)

Marks

Two markings appear on one of the bears (S15w15.2)
Inscribed (underside of proper right front paw): one character, ju [meaning "immense" and perhaps the maker's mark]
Inscribed (underside of right rear paw): one character, you [meaning "right"]

Bibliography

Gilbert Wendel Longstreet and Morris Carter. General Catalogue (Boston, 1935), p. 103, pl. 4.
Morris Carter. "Mrs. Gardner & The Treasures of Fenway Court" in Alfred M. Frankfurter (ed.). The Gardner Collection (New York, 1946), p. 55.
George L. Stout. Treasures from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston, 1969), pp. 88-89, ill.
Yasuko Horioka. "Chinese Sculpture-II." Fenway Court 3 (February 1970), pp. 17-24, nos. 1a-1d.
Yasuko Horioka et al. Oriental and Islamic Art: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston, 1975), pp. 10-12, no. 3, ill.
Rollin van N. Hadley. Museums Discovered: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. (Ft. Lauderdale, FL, 1981), pp. 196-97, ill.
Rollin van N. Hadley (ed.). The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Isabella Stewart Gardner 1887-1924 (Boston, 1987), pp. 510-13, 516-17.
Michelle C. Wang et al. A Bronze Menagerie: Mat Weights of Early China. Exh. cat. (Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2006), pp. 10-12 fig.1, 87-93 cat. 4.
Alan Chong and Noriko Murai. Journeys East: Isabella Stewart Gardner and Asia. Exh. cat. (Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2009), pp. 36-37 fig. 36.


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Commentary

Delightfully naturalistic, these two bears sit heavily and somewhat awkwardly on the ground. With one hind leg tucked under, each one opens its mouth in a friendly growl. The carefully observed depiction of the animals cannily matches their original function, for these bronzes were meant to weight down the corners of straw or textile mats that were placed on low platforms for seating. Made in sets of four, mat weights have been excavated in aristocratic tombs of the Han dynasty. Often finely crafted, they appear to be highly prized personal possessions of daily use that were buried with their owners to represent the continuity between the living world and the afterlife.

Bears emerged as favored subjects in the art and literature of the Western Han dynasty. They may have had been associated with protective nature spirits, although real bears could also have been seen in the royal zoo of the emperor Wudi (ca. 140–87 BC) at the capital Chang’an (present-day Xi’an). In fact, the bears in the Gardner Museum, which are unusually large mat weights, were apparently found near Xi’an in 1900.

Source: Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 178.

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