Updated: Aug 16, 2021
Enamel glass painting is an art form that has been a superstar in the snuff bottle family, which has been highly praised by many art connoisseurs and collectors. It is due to the fact that the technical requirements for making enamel painting on glass are very difficult to achieve. From glassmaking, painting, to firing, they are all meticulous. The threshold for artists is also high because the enamel process is irreversible, which means the artist can only see its unique outcome in the final stage of firing. Each step will greatly affect the quality of the work. These are the reasons that contribute to the high failure rate and high cost. Every work can be said to be a rare treasure. For example: In the entire life creation, Wang Xisan, the contemporary snuff bottle master, as of 2014, less than fifty works have been created.
The origin of Enameled glass snuff bottle
Where does the enamel come from? The origin of Enamel is commonly believed to be from Europe. Westerners have long used enamel as a decorative embellishment on metal vessels for aesthetic purposes. It reached its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the Renaissance, enameled works were even more impressive in objects and works of art. The craft skills were then introduced into China in the 18th century. It was stored in the imperial palace as a means of offerings and gifts to the emperor. This art form was even later integrated with the characteristics of Chinese culture more closely after the Chinese fell in love with this art form.
Enameled Glass start to become popular
Immediately, the enamel art work became popular among the Chinese court officials and the royal family. For example, in the 35th year of Emperor Kangxi's reign, he commanded the construction of a glass workshop, which was supervised by a German missionary (Kilian Stumpf) who taught the related skills. After the end of the Kangxi Dynasty, Emperor Yongzheng, the successor, did not stop forging due to high manufacturing costs and a high defected rate. He even directly participated in the production. In many cases, he would give design suggestions and his evaluation of individual artwork. When Yongzheng was in power, he even constructed a total of 6 royal workshops in the Old Summer Palace, including glass manufacturing and enamel workshops. Even until the successor Emperor Qianlong, with the assistance of western experts such as Gabriel Leonard de brossard and Pierre d’ Incarville, glass manufacturing had reached its peak. At this time, the painted enameled glass snuff bottles had become a symbol of the elite class, fashion, and social status. He Shen, the favorite of Emperor Qianlong, is the best example. It is said that there were as many as 2,300 snuff bottles and enamels in his house before his execution. During the Qianlong period, the noun of Guyuexuan appeared. This is one of the enclosed courtyard workshops in the Old Summer Palace. However, there are different origins of the Guyuexuan. For details, see The Puzzle of GuYuexuan, written by LIN YE QIAN.
Why Enameled Glass is precious
As for the materials, the enameled snuff bottle can be sorted into metal, ceramic, and glass generally. Among these, glass is the most precious type because the enamel pigment is mixed with glass particles and liquid to obtain paint-like consistency. It creates a challenge because the melting point of the glass is similar to the melting point of the enamel pigment. When the carrier reaches the softening temperature before the enamel is attached, the entire container will deform. Not to mention. each color must be fired for each every single time. To obtain the correct color, timing is the key to success. This is why enameled glass is considered much more of a treasure. Moreover, the firing process is time-consuming, which will take around one and a half months to complete an artwork. In addition, the kiln used in the early days was only a simplified kiln, so the firing technology was extremely difficult to control, which requires a high degree of concentration for the craftsmen.
Wang Xisan's teacher, Ye Zhenqi, once said:
This is a very demanding art. Only three-tenths of family works will be successfully produced, so it can be said to be an expensive and time-consuming process. If the firing temperature is too low, the enamel will not adhere to the glass smoothly, and if the temperature is too high, the whole piece will melt again. How to get the correct color is a tricky problem, so they only burn one piece at a time. The process of making enamel on different materials can be found in this article.
However, after Emperor Qianlong's death, the successor of Emperor, Jiaqing, ordered the closure of the royal enamel workshop in the palace due to the economic recession and lack of talented artists. Since then, the high-level art produced by the royal workshops have come to an end. Nevertheless, this art form didn’t fall apart as result. Instead, it continued to be advanced by the repatriated artists. When they returned to their hometowns, they began their own trading activities, setting up private kilns to continue this activity. This has allowed the continuous re-develop and innovation, which was later to thrive at the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the Republic of China to meet the needs of overseas collectors. It is straightforward to mention that most of the works of this period are signed by the Qianlong reign mark.
Among the court official artists scattered all over the world, the Ye Shangyi family ( Ye family), the grandfather of Ye Zhongsan, the four great masters of painting snuff bottles in the late Qing Dynasty, had successfully preserved and passed down the royal craftsmanship of enamel to the next generation. It has made an unlimited contribution to the history of art, which also became the beginning of contemporary enamel snuff bottles. The sons of Ye Zhongsan, Ye Xiaofeng, and Ye Zhenqi, respectively inherited the technique of enamel firing and painting skills. After World War 2, they passed down the skills to Wang Xisan. Before Ye Zhenqi died, he hoped that Xisan wang would be the best among his students. He would carry forward the skill of enamel.
Therefore, Wang Xisan became the fifth-generation heir of the Ye family and invented “ the electric furnace firing process”, which significantly improved the qualification rate of enamel. His works are limited in number and are currently very popular in the international market. However, he had already discontinued producing this art. In modern times, the sixth generation of the Ye family’s inheritors is Liu Heping, Ye Aiping, Sun Sansong, You Fenghua. Among them, You Fenghua is the one of the enamel artists on the market who has signed her name, which is very rare within the enamel artists. All in all, with talents and hard work, they are dedicated to the study of enamel painting on glass and continue to carry forward this art form to the world.