Flawless crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a slightly concave lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding broad, flat footrim; painted on one main side with Wang Xiang sitting on cracked ice among reeds with two fish beside him, accompanied by a descriptive poem, followed by the signature 'Executed by Ma Shaoxuan', with two seals of the artist in negative seal script, the first illegible, the second, Shao, also in negative seal script, the other main side with a katydid feeding on a cabbage beside a radish, a clump of narcissus beyond, inscribed in draft script with a poem about the subject, followed by the signature, Ma Shaoxuan, with one seal of the artist, Shaoxuan, in negative seal script
Ma Shaoxuan, Studio for Listening to the Qin, Ox Street district, Beijing Height: 6.5 cm Mouth/lip: 0.55/1.70 cm Stopper: coral, carved with a coiled chi dragon, with integral collar; gilt-bronze finial Condition: Bottle: slightly irregular cylinder of neck and slightly bevelled outer lip suggest chips may have been polished out of outer edge, but successfully done; two miniscule indentations on footrim suggest it may have been reduced very slightly to hide chips, but possibly not. Painting: very slight snuff staining to the cream colour of the figure's trousers, but otherwise in remarkably good condition. General relative condition: extremely good
Provenance: John Sparks Ltd. (London, circa 1962) Hugh Moss (1980) Gerd Lester (1986)
Published: Chinese Snuff Bottles No. 2, p. 47, fig. 12 The Connoisseur, February 1966, p. 111 Snuff Bottles of the Ch'ing Dynasty, no. 234 Lester 1981, p. 35, lower left Kleiner 1987, no. 287 Treasury 4, no. 597 Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, OctoberDecember 1978 Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987 Creditanstalt, Vienna, MayJune 1993
Commentary One of Ma's great early masterpieces, this was the first inside-painted snuff bottle that Hugh Moss acquired for his own collection after the debacle with the Ye Zhongsan bottle described under lot 29 (Treasury 4, no. 528). Inspired to collect for himself, he scoured the antique shops of London only to find the bottle he most wanted in the most expensive Chinese art shop in town at the time, that of John Sparks, Ltd, in Mount Street. The asking price was a hefty fourteen pounds sterling, wildly expensive at that time and beyond Moss's pocket, but Peter Vaughan, the then proprietor of Sparks, recognized the helpless lust of a collector and took pity on the lad, allowing him to pay in seven monthly instalments. The bottle was set on Moss's bedside table that very night, and stayed there for a week, the lights going on and off all through the night as he woke up to marvel at his new-found treasure in his excitement.
This subject was first painted as early as 1894, but Ma did three versions in 1898, one of which is identical in shape and style to this one and we are probably safe in assuming that this was painted in the same year. It was in the Arthur W. Scharfeld Collection and the painting of Wang Xiang on that bottle is almost identical in composition and inscription, although it is a slightly simpler version and not so satisfyingly composed. The figure is closer to the base of the bottle, and there is less setting in the way of reeds surrounding him. It appears that Ma, having painted the Scharfeld version, improved upon the composition, moving the figure up a little, to set him more on a diagonal with the two fish, and adding a little more background detail, particularly behind the figure, in order to better integrate the painting and inscription. The vegetables on the other side of the Scharfeld version are very differently composed with only the radish and the cabbage with its katydid. Here the composition is made far more powerful by adding the third element, another indication that it is the later, evolved version of the subject. Of the three versions from 1898, the Scharfeld example is dated to the seventh month, at the beginning of autumn, while the other is dated to the winter of the year and is the more evolved version, similar to this, although in a more rectangular shaped bottle (Chinese Snuff Bottles no. 3, p. 67, bottom right). It seems likely that this one was done sometime shortly after the seventh month of 1898, given the similarly shaped bottle, although it may have been done a little later, since there is a version in glass of the same two compositions dated to 1904 (Geng Baochang and Zhao Binghua 1992, no. 338).
Although this crystal bottle could have been an older one, we are inclined to believe that it was not, simply because Ma painted inside this shape on several occasions, as did other artists of the time, and yet there are very few old, plain bottles known of this series of exaggerated pear shapes, as flattened as this and tapering evenly to the neck, suggesting that they were made to be painted.
The story of Wang Xiang (184268) was incorporated into the twenty-four famous paragons of filial piety. Wang lived in the transitional period between the Eastern Han, the Three Kingdoms and the Jin dynasty. He eventually became a high official of the Jin. It is said that as a young man he was ill-treated by his step-mother. Notwithstanding, he always complied with her wishes. Once when she fancied eating fresh fish in winter, Wang Xiang took off his clothes and laid himself down on a frozen stream, hoping to melt a hole in the ice to catch fish. Moved by his filial piety, the god in heaven rewarded him by causing a pair of carp to leap out of the water.
The poem on that side of the bottle reads:
Step-mothers are [everywhere] in this world. [But] under heaven [one] will never find [another] Wang Xiang. Even now on the stream [There is still] a sheet of ice resembling [Wang's] recumbent body.
On the other side is written:
Magnificently clad [and emitting] splendid sounds, [The katydid] brings about a melancholy [mood]. With this guest on [my] mind, [My] poetic thoughts are aroused [and I begin] to versify, The boundless emotions [in my heart].
This inscription is unusual for Ma in that it is in draft script rather than his usual regular script, but see discussion under Treasury 4, no. 594.