Modern Art of Snuff Bottle

Snuff Bottle: History and Main Characteristics of Contemporary Schools of Inside Painting. Part I


As inside painting is a fresh art form in the trail of snuff bottle family, only a few academic research has been done so far as to modern inside painted snuff bottle (IPSb). However, I, D.D Art discovered one of the fine essays composed by Peter A. Bentley, a senior IPSBs collector, which deserves to share widely. Regarding Peter's background, with credentials as having a Ph.D. from Oxford (even though it was in Vacuum Physics and not related to Chinese art and Culture). It gave him delicate and systematic writing skills that have contributed to the most delicate essay in the field of IPSb. Peter A. Bentley had devoted himself to fighting to promote modern work. Unfortunately, in 2020, he passed away and cannot continue his venture. Not only is it a pity, but also a considerable loss to this industry. I hope this post can be in memory of his accomplishment.

This article is entirely composed by Peter. I only made a few minor proofreading problems and subtitles of each paragraph without changing the originality. It is to improve the readability on the internet. My intention isn't to copy his work for my interest. But, it is to hope his splendid work can be read by more IPSb collectors, realizing what Peter had expected when he was alive. This decision was made with several talking to some of the collectors and reaching the same expectation. It will be ruth if it can't appear in the Google search but only in the file or hard copy.

This article comprises four parts to discuss the contemporary schools of inside painting in detail. This post only contains the upper portion due to the time-limited of our effort in composing. If you like it, please subscribe to our website. It is a massive drive for us to keep our venture in providing you with the information of IPSb. The next part of his essay will be produced soon. For the original hard copy digital file, please email us at ddartwork@outlook.com.

Go to Two Main Points:

  1. The History and Genealogy of the Five Schools of Modern Inside Painting

  2. Main Characteristics of the Five Schools

Introduction :

As I start this article, I would like to pick up on an important point that Hugh Moss made in his presentation in Hong Kong and in his article in the Winter 2014 Journal. Although I never once discussed inside-painted bottles with Hugh, I wish to reiterate the final key point of his presentation, which is the difference between artistic and commercial inside painting, i.e., art versus craft. Anyone who knows Hong Kong well has heard of China Arts and Crafts (CAC). Certainly, CAC sells beautiful crafts, but only a small number of its sale exhibits are true art. Therefore, all art is a craft, but not all craft is art! So it is with inside painting. All inside painting is a craft, and it is wonderful to collect such beautiful miniature paintings inside bottles. This applies equally to the Early, Middle, and Modern periods, but I would go further and say that some inside painting goes beyond just craft and becomes truly an art, albeit art in miniature.

As a collector exclusively of very modern inside-painted bottles, I have devoted the great majority of my bottles to Chinese landscapes, plus a few birds, cats, and spiders. I have built my collection of over 300 bottles, most of which I bought on a limited budget, over the past ten years.

I only bought bottles if I considered them truly beautiful and for no other reason. Certainly, I have never bought for investment value. I went through the usual learning process of making lots of mistakes at the beginning. Now I buy only bottles that I think are true works of art. So instead of writing about the contemporary schools of inside painting, I want to go one step further and discuss creative works of art in a bottle rather than, as Hugh Moss aptly said, just “a ship in a bottle”-type works of craft.

Though I have lived in Hong Kong for over half my life and worked full time in China for almost thirty years, it was only ten years ago that I took an interest in inside-painted snuff bottles, despite seeing them almost every day in hotel gift shops in China. My interest in inside-painted bottles comes simply from the fact that I love Chinese landscape paintings and bought quite a few in Beijing’s famous Liu Li Chang art street during the mid-1980s. It also comes from the fact that I love miniatures. However, there is a limit to how many paintings one can hang in a small Hong Kong flat, so I was eventually forced to stop buying them.

One day in 2004, while I was showing some Western friends the Great Wall, I noticed what I thought at the time was quite a pretty Chinese landscape bottle in a souvenir shop and bought it for myself to remember the occasion. I thought I was being clever by negotiating down to US$ 100 from the marked price of over US$ 300, not realizing that it was in fact worth less than US$ 10. Anyway, it was a fun purchase.

Then I recalled that I knew a specialist shop in Beijing close to my hotel that sold inside-painted bottles. So I went back to the shop and found that it indeed had hundreds of bottles for sale and at quite reasonable prices. Many were Chinese landscapes that were much better painted than my bottle bought at the Great Wall. Then in one corner of the shop, I saw a little shelf on which there were a half-dozen bottles that were obviously many times better than anything else in the store in terms of both painting and artistic skills (but also proportionally more expensive!).

That was the first time I ever saw inside-painted bottles by real artists. I immediately fell in love with those special bottles and returned over and over again to the shop to negotiate prices, which at that time were never more than US$ 500 per bottle after negotiation, and often much lower.

By about 2008, I had bought a dozen bottles from the Beijing shop and a similar specialist shop in Shanghai. I, therefore, started to study this special Chinese

art form more seriously and regularly travel to Hengshui and Shijiazhuang, besides attending many exhibitions in order to meet the artists in person. I also got to know Jill Guojie and her husband, Li Hui, from whom I also have bought many excellent bottles at very affordable prices. However, although I now have over 300 bottles, I still consider myself a novice in this field.

I will now introduce the Contemporary Schools of Inside Painting and, in particular, my personal area of interest, Very Modern Inside-Painted Bottles. I will address four points in this article:

  1. The History and Genealogy of the Five Schools of Modern Inside Painting.

  2. The Main Characteristics of the Five Schools.

  3. Quantum leaps in painting skill over the past fifty years.

  4. Quantum leaps in painting creativity over the past twenty years.

The first two points are covered in this issue of the Journal. The last two points will be covered in Part II of this article, which will appear in the Autumn 2015 issue of the Journal. There are currently five Schools of Modern Inside Painting (fig 1):

The Five Schools of Modern Inside Painting snuff bottle. D.D Art.
Fig.1. The Five Schools of Modern Inside Painting

  • The Ji School, which is by far the biggest Modern School, is based in Hebei province in the cities of Hengshui and Shijiazhuang.

  • The Jing School, which is the original and oldest Modern School, is based in Beijing.

  • The Lu School is based in Shandong province, principally Zibo city.

  • The Yue School is based in Shantou city, Guangdong province.

  • The Qin School, the newest of the five, it is based in Xian. There is no magic in the names of these five schools.

They are simply the abbreviated Chinese names for the five provinces in which the cities are located. Should you have not heard of some of these cities, they are shown on the map in figure 2, which gives you a perspective as to the overall location of the schools.

Fig.2 Locations of the Five Schools of Modern Inside Painting snuff bottle. D.D Art
Fig.2. Locations of the Five Schools of Modern Inside Painting

The History and Genealogy of the Five Schools of Modern Inside Painting :

For simplicity, I have divided the history of Inside Painting into six periods, rounding to the nearest approximate decades:

  • EARLY 早期 : 1800–1860

  • MIDDLE 中期 : 1880–1930

  • TRANSITION 過度期 : 1930–1960

  • EARLY MODERN 近代早期 : 1960–1980

  • MODERN近代 : 1980–2000

  • VERY MODERN現代 : 2000–Today

The dates of these six periods are not definitive. As I am not a specialist on the Early and Middle periods, I defer to others regarding the nineteenth century if there are any significant errors (fig. 3).

Fig.3.  The Middle Period of Inside Painted snuff bottle. D.D Art
Fig.3. The Middle Period of Inside Painting

Fig.4.  The Transition Period of Inside Painting snuff bottle. D.D Art
Fig.4. The Transition Period of Inside Painting

After the Early and Middle periods comes what I have very loosely described as the Transition period. It roughly runs from 1930 to 1960 and covers the years of World War II and the Chinese War of Liberation (fig. 4). Some collectors may object to giving any name at all to these intervening years because inside painting virtually stopped from 1930 to 1950 and only really got going again toward the end of the 1950s. (One could even date the start of the Transition period back to 1912, when Ye Zhongsan started training his sons, Ye Xiaofeng and Ye Bengqi, overlapping the tail end of the Middle period.). Therefore I do emphasize that the term “Transition period” is only intended to serve as a convenient way to bridge the gap between the end of the Middle period and the start of the Modern period. Finally, and most important for this commentary, we have the Modern period, which only for the sake of clarity and convenience I have divided into the Early Modern, the “True” Modern per se, and the Very Modern periods (figs. 5, 6). These, I repeat, are just terms I have coined myself for the purpose of making the historical development of the five Modern Schools easier to understand.

Historical experts may feel that some dates should be changed slightly, e.g., to 1932 when Ma Shaoxuan stopped painting or to 1957 when Wang Xisan started training. Some collectors may also consider the Early Modern period to have actually began in 1950. You may have noted that in Hugh Moss’s article, his cut-off date for all pre-Modern period bottles is 1949. If so, the dates might look better as listed below:

  • EARLY 早期 : ~1790~1860

  • MIDDLE 中期 : ~1880–1932

  • TRANSITION 過度期 : 1932–1950* (*1957?)

  • EARLY MODERN 近代早期 : 1950*–1980 (*1957?)

  • MODERN 近代 : 1980~1995

  • VERY MODERN現代 : ~1995–Today

However, all these exact historical dates do not really matter for the purpose of this article because my main focus is on the Very Modern period. Much more important is the question of when the Very Modern period started. Was it year 2000 or 1995 or even as early as 1990? I prefer to use the year 2000 to mark the beginning of the Very Modern period because it is an easy date to remember, and it coincides with the great burst of new painting activity and styles that have blossomed since the start of the twenty-first century (fig. 7).

Fig. 5. The Early Modern Period of Inside Painting snuff bottle. D.D Art
Fig. 5. The Early Modern Period of Inside Painting

For the genealogy of the five Modern Schools we must first go back to the Middle period, which began in Beijing with famous artists whose names are well-known to all: Ye Zhongsan, Zhou Leyuan, Ding Erzhong, Ma Shaoxuan, Yan Yutian, etc. (see fig. 3).

Bi Rongjiu also started in Beijing but then moved back to his hometown of Boshan in Shandong, just a few kilometers south of Zibo. Sadly, none of these artists had pupils who continued the tradition of inside painting except Ye Zhongsan who died in 1945 and Bi Rongjiu who died in 1925 (see fig. 4).

Next we enter what I have loosely termed the “Transition period” from roughly 1930 until the decade 1950 to1960, during which time Ye Zhongsan’s baton was picked up by his two sons, Ye Xiaofeng and Ye Bengqi. Meanwhile, in Shandong, Bi Rongjiu’s skills were passed on to Zhang Wentang and then later indirectly to Xue Jingwan. So were founded the first two Schools, the Jing and the Lu.

Somewhat later, toward the end of the 1960s, Wu Songling independently started what would later become known as the Yue School in Shantou. The School followed a different art form known as the “Lingnan style,” which partly explains why the Yue School developed in its own unique direction. The Yue School was officially founded in 1972 after Wu Songling retired (fig. 5).