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Modern Art of Snuff Bottle

Ye Family: the origin of modern snuff bottle art

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

Who is Ye Zhongsan? And why is it important to mention the Ye family for every snuff bottle collector? It is a common question often inquired by snuff bottle collectors. This article will give you insight into the Ye family and what they contributed to inside painting art, and why they are so crucial in contemporary inside painted snuff bottles.

An artist is portraying the famous traditional Chinese figure, inside painted snuff bottle, D.D Art
An artist is portraying the famous traditional Chinese figure. Resource from Internet

The information on Ye Zhongsan is insufficient, so it is difficult for collectors to understand it deeply since there are not many records of inside painters in the Qing Dynasty, and various investigations have yet to be verified. Most of the current understanding of Ye Zhongsan is based on the oral transmissions from his sons Ye Bengqi and Ye Shaofeng. But we could still get a slight trace to understand Ye family inside painting and its influence on contemporary inside painting through some documents and published books. At present, the founders of the Ji school and the Beijing school, Wang Xisan and Liu Shouben, both come from the direct inheritance of the Ye family. It has been evident to the importance of the Ye school in the inside painting world. Without a doubt, the Ye family can be regarded as the beginning of the modern inner painting world.

More about Ye Zhongsan

Ye Zhongsan (1869-1945): one of four major inside painters in late Qing dynasty. D.D Art
Ye Zhongsan (1869-1945)

Ye Zhongsan (1869-1945) was born in the late Qing Dynasty and lived in Beijing his entire life, and the generations in Ye Family were officials at that time. Among the traditional inside painting snuff bottles, Ye Zhongsan is regarded as one of four prominent inside painters in the late Qing Dynasty. He is as famous as Ma Shaoxuan, Zhou Leyuan, and Ding Erzhong. Ye Zhongsan started to learn internal painting when he was 23 years old. His early works were mainly imitating Zhou Leyuan's works, and only after the middle stages did he develop his painting style. Among the painting themes, Ye Zhongsan was particularly good at "traditional figure painting" and was a rare human figure painter in that period. However, to cater to the needs of collectors, Ye Zhongsan still painted landscapes, flowers, birds, etc., and most of which were imitated Zhou Leyuan's works. The character depiction is no doubt the best and classic out of Ye Zhongsan.

The figures' theme painted by Ye Zhongsan is selected chiefly from traditional Chinese figures. For example, the Strange Tales of Liao Zhai (a classic literature work with a collection of about 500 stories by Pu Songling of the Qing Dynasty), Dream of Red Mansions, etc. These characters are the inspiration seized by Ye Zhongsan from the Republic of China, the books and novels published in the period, such as the Three Kingdoms, Dream of Red Mansions, and even from the western paintings in the small cigarette box. It usually gave a flash of inspiration for Ye Zhongsan. It is worth mention that Ye Zhongsan’s animal works are primarily derived from these western paintings put in the small cigarette box.

The feature of Ye Zhongsan's work

Moreover, Ye Zhongsan’s work is known for its story's plot, simple and folk style, and his works are quite popular among the collectors. Ye Zhongsan’s inside paintings are very distinctive and not challenging to identify. The most outstanding of the characters are:

  • The willow-shaped eyebrows.

  • The small walnut-like eyes.

  • The small cherry-like mouth.

Ye Zhongsan: a inside painted snuff bottle. A classic work. D.D Art
Ye Zhongsan: an inside painted snuff bottle. A classic piece.

The inheritance of Ye family

Throughout Ye Zhongsan's lifetime, he has five sons. The eldest son Ye Bengzhen, the second son Ye Shaofeng (Bengxi), the third child Ye Bongqi, the four son Ye Bengzhi, and the last children Ye Bengyou. However, not all of his children studied inside painting. Among them, the fourth and fifth sons did not learn this skill due to their young age and the wartime. The eldest son is the most capable of inheriting Ye Zhongsan's skills, and Ye Zhongsan also put a high expectation on him. Unfortunately, Ye Bengzhen died young at the age of 33, due to illness. It made Ye Zhongsan exceedingly sorrowful. Therefore, this responsibility later fell on both Ye Shaofeng and Ye Bongqi.

However, during the time, China faced the sinister Anti-Japanese War and later the Chinese Civil War. Ye Bongqi and Ye Xiaofeng stopped painting in such a chaotic background due to economic reasons and switched to other industries. The inside painting technique had nearly wiped out. Until 1950, after the founding of the People's Republic of China, the Beijing Municipal Government invited these two inside painting successors. It offered them generous treatment to restarting this traditional Chinese art production. In 1957, the recruitment of new apprentices began. Their early disciples are few, including Wang Xisan (1958) and Liu Shouben (1960). Both Wang Xisan and Liu Shouben prefer human characters and animal subjects in inside paintings. They were assigned to Ye Shaofeng's academy to study. Ye Shaofeng is good at human characters and animals; On the contrary, Ye Bongqi is proficient in flowers and birds, each master has their strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, the good times did not last long. In merely six years of studying, the Cultural Revolution broke out immediately. Many traditional techniques and painting subjects could no longer be allowed to be painted. The municipal research group had to disband, so Wang Xisan returned to Hebei, where his hometown was located. In 1968, Wang Xisan established his style, Ji school inside painting. He worked as labor during the day and painted and sold it to foreign trade buyers at night. The foreign trade purchasers favored this item, so Wang Xisan was allowed to continue painting. In contrast, the burden of inheritance of the Beijing School fell on Liu Shou himself, and then Liu Shouben became one of the most representative figures in the Beijing School.

Young Wang Xisan was painting at the Beijing Institute of Arts and crafts in 1961. D.D Art
Young Wang Xisan was painting at the Beijing Institute of Arts and crafts in 1961. Picture from Internet.

In conclusion

Currently, the Ji school and the Beijing school are the mainstays in the field of inside painting. The Ji school and the Beijing school are inextricably linked. The Ji school is also the contemporary inside painting school with the most significant number of practitioners, and both are the most influential in inside painting. However, the representatives of these two masters inherited the traditional skills from the Ye family. They then developed their styles with years of cultural cultivation and training, innovating out of tradition. Both Wang Xisan and Liu Shouben can be described as pioneers in the development of contemporary inside painting culture. Without the traditional inheritance of the Ye family, there would not be a bloomed contemporary inside the painting world. The conventional internal painting skills of the Ye family can be said to have laid a solid foundation for the itinerary and development of the internal painting art of the Beijing and Ji schools. Ye family have made significant contributions to the history of inside painting without a doubt.

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