An inscribed 'famille-rose' porcelain snuff bottle
Cheng Men, 18901908 (the bottle 18201850 ) 5.92cm high.
Treasury 6, no. 1433
瓷胎粉彩人物風景鼻煙壺 景德鎮 壺：1820～1850 琺瑯彩：程門，1890～1908
Famille rose enamels on colourless glaze on porcelain; with a flat lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a reticulated, flared, convex footrim; the shoulders with handles, pierced for cords, in the form of corrupted stylized animal heads; painted on one side with a scene of a man riding a horse on a grassy ground, with one seal of the artist in negative seal script, Cheng, and on the other with a scholar crossing a rock bridge in front of a waterfall in a mountainous landscape with trees, with one undeciphered seal of the artist in negative seal script; the lip, inner neck, and interior glazed. Jingdezhen Bottle: 18201850 Enamelling: Cheng Men 18901908 Height: 5.92 cm Mouth/lip: 0.6/1.1 cm Stopper: glass, carved with a coiled chi dragon Condition: tiny abrasion on the outer lip, possibly a minor flaw in the original manufacture ground off by the maker; miniscule abrasion to the underside of one mask handle; none of it visually obtrusive. General relative condition: excellent
Commentary: Cheng Men was a porcelain painter of the Qianjiang school of enamellers, who were active at Jingdezhen from about the time of the Taiping upheavals in the 1850s and 1860s to the end of the dynasty. The sudden curtailment of imperial production from 1855, when the imperial-kiln complex were burned to the ground by the Taiping rebels, forced a great many skilled potters and enamellers to fend for themselves for the next decade or so. Those who came to be known as the Qianjiang school refocused their artistic skills into a group of wares painted on porcelain in a manner similar to literati painting, signing and adding seals to their works, even dating them sometimes. For Cheng's works, see Wain 1998, nos. 324. Cheng Men was one of the finest enamellers of the group. He appears to have trained, at least in part, in the imperial factory but later produced a group of wares under his own name. He was active from 1862 onwards; his last known work is dated to 1908. Like Qianjiang school painters generally, he preferred a larger format, so his works on snuff bottles are extremely rare. Other artists in the group were Wang Shaowei, Jin Pinqing, and Pan Taoyu. According to Peter Wain, who was kind enough to give us his opinion on this bottle, this is a late work, probably from around 19001905, although we have left our usual safety margin. The painting is typical of the school and places more emphasis on the brushwork than any other group of porcelains. The Tang Ying bottles of the early Qianlong (Treasury 6, nos. 11481150) are painterly, but the brushwork is still subservient to the overall painting, whereas here the artist uses a vocabulary of short strokes that take on a life of their own independently of what they describe. Even the green wash behind the horse has been applied in quick little daubs that compete for the eye's attention against the staccato strokes of the animal's legs. On the other side, the man on the left side of the chasm and the greenish rock on the right side are reduced most conspicuously to thrusts of the brush but not because the artist was working in haste to meet a quota, as one might see on some crafts, for the strokes are confident, energetic, and artistically consistent with the more conventional handling of the trees and rocks. The whole scene could be lifted off the bottle, mounted as an album leaf, and remain impressive.
The bottle appears to have been made quite some time before it was painted. It is formally very obviously part of the group represented by Treasury 6, nos. 12851287, 1335, and 1347, which are probably from the Daoguang period, although the shape may have continued a little thereafter. We know from the range of decorative techniques used on this shape of bottle in other instances that some were monochrome. It appears that this one was either intended as a plain white bottle or was meant to be enamelled at the time but was left undecorated for whatever reason, coming into Cheng's hands at a later date. Of course, Cheng could have had a similar bottle made at any time, but this is unlikely. Cheng was a painter, and if he had ordered up a bottle for his canvas, it would surely have been less fancy in its own right, so as not to divert attention from the painting.