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Modern Art of Snuff Bottle

What are Antique Chinese Snuff Bottle and the historical progress?

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

The origin of snuff bottles can be traced back to the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, and it was introduced into mainland China by Western missionaries, Matteo Ricci. Originally, the snuff bottle was first invented to prevent the snuff powder from being damp. Before it debuted, most westerners used the boxes to store snuff powder. However, it was later discovered that the moisture-proof effect of the box was not as efficient as the use of a pot-shaped carrier, which was later known as a “Snuff bottle.” In addition, the new design of the small spoon of the snuff bottle lid allows the user to inhale snuff at any time to relieve rhinitis. Ever since, snuff bottles gradually replaced boxes and became the main carrier of snuff powder. In addition to this, Westerners made the snuff bottles more beautiful and visually appealing to people because of their portable convenience.

In the early Qing Dynasty, snuff bottles were introduced to China as tributes by diplomatic envoys. This art form immediately became very popular among the imperial family of the Qing Dynasty due to its unique shape, good handling texture, and the function of carrying around. According to records, it was one of the favorite portable toys of Emperor Kangxi. At this time, the snuff bottle was regarded as a status symbol. When the two men met, they first liked to talk about the snuff bottle tied around their waist to show their social status. There is a saying in China that a snuff bottle is worth a chain of gold, which is no question. Only wealthy people can have a snuff bottle in their hands. Therefore, snuff bottles are also described as a typical work of art that represents the culture of the Qing Dynasty.

Portrait of an official holding a snuff bottle
Portrait of an official holding a snuff bottle, 18-19 centuries. Sotheby's HK auction. Sold for HK$81,250.

The transition to inside painting from normal snuff bottle

However, before the middle of the Qing Dynasty, the quality of snuff bottles was determined by using different materials, the exquisite carving, and the elegance of the bottle body and lid. It was not until the end of the Qing Dynasty that the snuff bottle began to change. It was no longer the difference in external carving and material but began to integrate the local Chinese painting skills with crafts on snuff bottles. Then, this art form was referred to as an "inside painted snuff bottle." Such a fusion of Chinese and Western cultural works of art has gradually begun to reveal itself to the world, becoming a new type of art form. In terms of carrier production, painting skills, and painting themes, the inside painted snuff bottle has the reputation of "a miniature artwork that is a collection of much Chinese craftsmanship."

Ye Bengqi's work in early Republic of China.
Ye Bengqi's work in early Republic of China.

The myth of the inside painted snuff bottle

The inside painted snuff bottle, as it implies, is to paint inside the bottle, using the hooked brush to penetrate deep into the mouth of the bottle and paint in the reverse direction. The spirit and technique of painting are no different from those of traditional Chinese paintings. However, an excellent painter can ingeniously match the layout, color, and texture of the painting throughout different carriers, such as natural crystal, glass, agate, to make the presentation of the painting to a higher level.

There are many different stories about the true origin of inside paintings. The most well-known story is the fox fairy in traditional Chinese mythology. "One day, the fox fairy saw admirers with the exquisite snuff bottles attached to them. Out of curiosity, the fox fairy dived into one, the action which was overwhelmed with fanfare. The fox fairy was rolling in the middle and the rotation of its feet created an exquisite pattern. Later on, when the admirer saw the appearance of the bottle, they thought it was the blessing of the fox fairy. Therefore, the admires began to follow the instructions from fox fairy, to paint inside the bottle to get the blessing of the fox fairy."

Another myth is that a Chinese monk staying in a temple wanted to snuff the powder to soothe his headache. Due to the running out of the snuff powder, he accidentally used a small spoon on the bottle's lid to scratch the powder, which touched the surface on occasion. Surprisingly, the monk found out that the bottle surface is similar to the exquisite lines of traditional Chinese painting, which has later expanded to the inside painting.

A Inside painted snuff bottle, by Gan Huanwen (1816)
Inside painted snuff bottle, by Gan Huanwen ( 1816 ). Collected in Princeton University Art Museum

The historical explanation on the origin of inside painted snuff bottle

It was not a monk who invented this type of painting. A painter invented the inside painted snuff bottle during the Jiaqing period in the Qing Dynasty. He poured small steel balls, quartz sand, and a small amount of water into the pot and shook it to grind fine lines on the inner wall to make the paint color easy to adhere to. Then, he dipped the color with a hooked bamboo pen and painted it on the inner wall in reverse. This painter is Gan Huanwen, and the earliest existing inside the painted snuff bottle of Gan Huanwen was made in 1816. The works in the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China (ROC) belonged to the category of "old snuff bottle" in the middle period." Most of his works were painted with a hooked bamboo pen. However, the inside painting skills were not yet mature at this time. It was not until the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the Republic of China that the inside painted snuff bottle had a significant watershed in art history. There are four representative painters; Shaoxuan Ma, Erzhong Ding, Leyuan Zhou, and Ye Zhongsan, the origin of the most well-known Ji school. For more details about Ye Zhongsan and his family, click here. In modern times, snuff bottle scholars refer to the four figures as the highest level of inside painted snuff bottles. They were not only popular at the time, but their inside-painted snuff bottles are also appealing to collectors these days.

According to the paper, "Contemporary schools of inside painting", by Peter A. Bentley, the period of inside painting can be divided into six periods in the following.

  1. Early: 1800-1860

  2. Middle: 1880-1930

  3. Transition: 1930-1960

  4. Early modern: 1960-1980

  5. Modern: 1980-2000

  6. Very Modern: 2000-Today

Despite the fact that scholars have hold different perspectives towards the exact years, we think as a collectors it is better to know the approximate range for now rather than spending time on arguing the scholar's questions.

In conclusion

Today, with the advanced skills of inside painting and the improved knowledge of painting that mixed with different elements of western and eastern skills, modern snuff bottles have created a new era in art history. This art form is indispensable. According to the auction house Christie's records, the auction price of the modern snuff bottle is surpassing that of the old snuff bottle. It has been a piece of evidence.

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