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photographer E-Yaji.
Snuff Bottles from the Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part I  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 28 May 2010: Lot 37 

Lot 37


Lot 37
Treasury 4, no. 661

A Fisherman’s Daughter

Flawless crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a concave lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; painted on each main side with portraits of actors playing roles from the opera Dayu shajia (A Fisherman Kills a Family), one side depicting the role of Xiao En, holding a sword behind his back, inscribed in clerical script with the title ‘Xiao En in Dayu shajia,’ followed in draft script by ‘Executed in early winter of the year yisi at the capital,’ the inscriptions preceded by one seal, Jingju (Beijing opera) and followed by two seals of the artist, Wang and Xisan, all in negative seal script, the other side showing the role of Xiao En’s daughter, Xiao Guiying, holding the handle of a paddle, inscribed in clerical script with the title ‘Xiao Guiying,’ followed in draft script by ‘Executed by Wang Xisan,’ followed by one seal of the artist, yin (seal), in negative seal script, with another in the lower left-hand corner, yujianü (a fisherman’s daughter)
Bottle: 1760–1870
Painting: Wang Xisan, Taiping zhuang, Beijing vicinity, 1965
Height: 6.4 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.80/2.38 cm
Stopper: glass; turquoise collar

Lot 37 Provenance:
Beijing Arts and Crafts Corporation (circa 1967)
Hugh M. Moss Ltd
Joan Wasserman
Sotheby’s, London, 6 June 1988, lot 322
Hugh M. Moss Ltd
JICSBS, Summer 1984, p. 21, fig. 2
Treasury 4, no. 661
Exhibited: Christie’s, London, 1999

Lot 37 Commentary
When Wang Xisan published this bottle he commented as follows:

I admire extremely the art of inside-painted portraits by Ma Shaoxuan, whose inside-painted portrait of Tan Xinpei in theatrical costume in the role of General Huang Zhong in Beijing opera ‘Ding Jun Mountain’ was an excellent work greatly admired by art lovers.

Out of this admiration, Wang Xisan became one of the great portrait painters in the medium, producing a series of opera subjects including some from the newly written Communist operas that were so popular at the time. He also painted famous figures from history, living politicians, members of the British Royal Family, and portraits of various collectors and their families as commissions (see, for instance, the two here, Treasury 4, nos. 672 and 673). He even painted a portrait of himself, holding an inside-painted snuff bottle (see Leung 1990, p. 34, no. 28). His series of portraits culminated in the sets of Qing emperors and their wives and the then thirty-nine presidents of the United States (ibid., pp. 37a–37d, and pp. 35 and 36), the latter an extraordinary tour de force where the individual quality and sensitivity of each portrait is in danger of being swamped by their sheer number when seen all together, not to mention by their gold stoppers and labels when viewed in their specially fitted trays.

While admiring Ma Shaoxuan’s portraiture, Wang was not satisfied with its method, preferring the portraiture of the Western oil-painting tradition. Ma Shaoxuan himself had set about blending Eastern and Western traditions for his portraits, but Wang went one stage further by adopting Western oil-painting methods, which he had learned, and adapting them for painting inside the snuff bottle. This led to the invention of some new tools for the medium, including a small pad tied to the end of a bamboo pen, which facilitated the blending together of colours. We can see the seeds of Wang’s new method here, but it is still a long way from the full-fledged, oil-painting style of his later portraits (see, for instance, ibid., p. 31, where a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II is backed by another of the Prince of Wales with Lady Diana Spencer, after they became engaged). Compared to them, this is much closer to the style and method of Ma Shaoxuan, but with added colour. It remains one of his masterpieces and it exhibits another unusual feature of portrait painting in this medium: the hands are shown. Not only are they shown, but they are extremely well painted. Ma Shaoxuan could also paint hands, which are difficult to depict convincingly, but generally did so mainly on his Beijing opera portraits. His monochrome portraits of dignitaries do not, as a rule, show the hands. Wang Xisan, consummate artist that he was, however, could paint anything convincingly, so when appropriate, as it is here, he included the hands in his portraits.

For the entertaining story of the opera involved here, see Treasury 4, no. 623. For another of Wang’s most impressive opera subjects, the Dwyer portrait which is also dated to 1965, see Christie’s, London, 12 October 1987, lot 74. For an example of his Communist opera series, of which he did several, particularly while under political pressure during the Cultural Revolution, see Leung 1990, p. 27, fig. 1.


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