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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VIII  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 26 May 2014: Lot 1096 

Lot 1096
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Lot 1096
Treasury 4, no. 465 (‘Zhou Leyuan’s Top Honours’)

Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a concave lip and recessed, slightly convex foot surrounded by a protruding rounded foot rim; painted on one main side with a group of auspicious objects (a natural rock sculpture, a vase with mask and ring handles containing branches of flowering prunus blossoms, the vase decorated with the three solid lines of the trigram Qian, a low jardinière containing calamus, the jardinière probably intended to be Yixing pottery, and a tripod incense-burner with what appears to be a cover-finial made from a natural rock or root), with one seal of the artist, Leyuan 樂元, in negative seal script, the other main side with a crab reaching for a clump of reeds, chrysanthemums, and prunus branches
Zhou Leyuan 周樂元, Studio of Lotus-root Fragrance, Xuannan, Beijing, 1881–1883
Height: 6.09 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.53/1.55 cm
Stopper: quartzite, with integral finial and collar

Anonymous collection
Sotheby’s London, 6 June 1988, lot 207

Treasury 4, no. 465

Christie’s, London, 1999

Zhou Leyuan is the pivotal artist of the late Qing dynasty. In Beijing, from the eighteen-eighties to the nineteen-twenties, the art of inside painting reached its zenith, not in terms of the number of artists working, for there have been more in the past forty years than there were in total before that time, but in terms of achieving the full potential of the art form and creating enough interest to give it a wide and permanent audience. Inside-painted snuff bottles reached their finest hour because of Zhou Leyuan, and he remains today the single most influential figure in the entire art form.

There is not a single bottle by Zhou Leyuan from his mature period, which we can take as the decade from 1883 to 1893, that fails to exhibit all the qualities of a high artist within the Chinese tradition. Every composition is fresh. Although subjects may be repeated, the composition of the subject is different every time. It is not what is painted but how it is painted that defines art. The art lies in the formal elegance of the composition, in the dance of the brushwork, the balance of ink tones and colours, in the texture and a myriad other esoteric languages of art. Every single work by Zhou demonstrates total commitment to the process of painting, which is far more important than the product, since the latter arises only out of the former.

Although the exact nature of what appears to be a rock set as a finial on the cover of the small incense burner seems uncertain here, it is made clear by Treasury 4, no. 484, where an incense burner has a cover with a natural rock or root finial.

This is obviously Zhou’s early work. Although the subject of the auspicious objects is a standard theme for the artist throughout his career, the style of this example is rather tentative and lacks the confidence of those done as early as 1884 (see lot 1105 in this auction and Sale 1, lot 88). We may assume that it was done earlier than those two. The crab is not a subject that appears again during his career, and it lacks the subtlety of brushwork and control he exhibits so clearly by 1884, so we can attribute this bottle with some confidence to the period between 1881 and 1883. We now know that Zhou Leyuan was painting snuff bottles with considerable skill as early as 1879. There is one from the Ann Kreuger Collection inscribed only with calligraphy. It is in his alternative earlier, broader style, which is usually painted on a polished interior surface without any frosting.


This is not the Sotheby’s sale catalogue. This is a product of Hugh Moss for the purposes of this website. For the catalogue details please refer to Sotheby’s website or request a copy of a printed sale catalogue from Sotheby’s.


Easy link to this page: http://www.e-yaji.com/auction/photo.php?photo=1834&exhibition=13&ee_lang=eng


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