Wang Xisan, dated 1962 (the bottle probably Official School, 17601860) 6.38cm high.
Treasury 4, no. 657
水晶內畫雅集鼻煙壺 壺：大概為頒賜類， 1760～1860 內畫：王習三，北京，1962年
Elegant Gathering Beneath the Pines
Flawless crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a concave lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding broad, flat footrim; the narrow sides carved with mask-and-ring handles; painted with a continuous composition of an elegant gathering of scholars in a rocky pine grove, with one seated at a marble-topped table in front of his qin, listening to another, seated on a nearby rock, playing the flute while a serving boy offers cups of wine on a tray, three other scholars sit at another marble-topped table set with food and more wine cups while another servant stands nearby with a pot of wine, inscribed in draft script 'Executed at the capital by Xisan in the eighth month of the year renyin', with two seals of the artist, Wang and yin (seal), in negative seal script
Bottle: probably Official school, 17601860 Painting: Wang Xisan, Beijing, eighth month, 1962 Height: 6.38 cm Mouth/lip: 0.70/2.54 cm Stopper: coral, carved with a coiled chi dragon; turquoise collar Condition: Bottle: tiny chip in outer lip and upper neck rim (0.2 cm at its widest, and shallow, extending down the neck 0.2 cm). Painting: studio condition
Provenance: Unrecorded source, Hong Kong, (19631965) Honor Smith (circa 1970) Hugh Moss (1985)
Published: Chinese Snuff Bottles No. 4, p. 33
Commentary: We are told by Ma Shaoxuan's grandson (Ma Zengshan 1997) that it took him some six years to gain sufficient skill in the art to present a group of satisfactory bottles to his father in 1891 and by the time of his earliest entirely reliably dated bottle in 1894, he was still exhibiting some hesitancy, particularly in his calligraphy. We know from Wang Xisan's own account, however, that he left Senior Middle school in 1957, failed a science and engineering examination (to the great benefit of snuff-bottle collectors everywhere), and was selected as one of three candidates out of three hundred for learning the art of inside-painting in the same year. By the middle of 1958 he was already producing paintings of a standard not far off that of his teachers, and by 1960 had begun to surpass them. There are many excellent works from the years 19591961, but from 1962 onwards he had mastered the art to such an astonishing extent that nothing he painted from then until the impact of the 'wilderness years' began to take their toll a decade later was less than a masterpiece. One reason why it took Wang Xisan so little time to become proficient in the art, and so little more time to become its greatest living master, was his artistic background. Wang was born in Beijing to a shoemaker and his wife on 24 May 1938, although his family was from Yang village in Fucheng county, Hebei province. At the age of four or five, Wang was already interested in calligraphy. He would visit a local Buddhist temple, where the accountant was a friend of his family. The accountant was a good calligrapher and taught Wang on a regular basis. Wang quickly showed an aptitude for this art form, and studied diligently, to the point that when the accountant was posted away from Beijing, he left Wang all his calligraphic copy books and models. At school, Wang later organized a group of three friends interested in art, and the three of them would study painting, calligraphy and culture in general, honing their artistic sensibilities all the while. He also studied painting privately under Wang Qingfang, so that by the time the Beijing Arts and Crafts Corporation held its examinations to find three suitable students to learn inside-painting in 1957, Wang was already an accomplished artist.
His depth of education in artistic matters and his cultural sophistication allowed Wang to make his first major contribution to the art form at this time. He was able to rise above the repetitive and decorative nature of the Ye family tradition of his teachers. Wang not only mastered the art to a level far beyond his teachers' abilities, but by restoring depth, spirit and artistic inventiveness to it, he gave it back its soul. In those golden years of artistic freedom, youthful energy and boundless possibilities, Wang was able to restore to the art the dignity it had once had under Yiru jushi and Gan Xuanwen, under Zhou Leyuan and under Ding Erzhong. He was able to redress the balance of more than half a century of creeping commercialism and decorative painting, the tradition he had inherited from his teachers, and proclaim the art of inside-painting alive and well and still living in Beijing where it probably all started more than one hundred and fifty years earlier.
This is a typically magnificent painting from 1962, in a lovely old crystal bottle, of one of the many new compositions introduced by Wang during this period in his career. Throughout his career, regardless of the physical and psychological pressures brought to bear on him by his turbulent circumstances, Wang is always an artist in his heart, and in these early works his artistry is allowed to shine through unhindered.
There is an interesting distinction to be made here between Wang's finest works and those of his teachers and the Ye family tradition they embodied. Although the group of figures in a landscape setting, even the elegant gathering of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (see Treasury 4, no. 645), are all reflected in this work, and the bright colouring of the clothes is similar, Wang's way of using this colouring is quite different. The Ye family tended to fill in colours as a means of clothing and distinguishing individuals. One wore a red jacket, one a blue, and so forth. Little attention was paid to individual observation of such details and none whatsoever to their re-invention for each work of art. Once established in the family pattern book, they are simply repeated over and over again with no further thought. In this bottle, however, Wang has carefully observed every detail of what he is depicting. There are no repeated postures, nominal colour fills, or token folds in clothing. Each figure is a little portrait of an individual alive in Wang's mind rather than a repeated figure-type, each fold of clothing is logical, well observed and convincingly realized. The same may be said of the setting. The Ye family pine trees are generic, pattern-book pines, often taken from Zhou Leyuan's works. Here, the main tree is a portrait of a particular pine, even if it only exists in Wang's mind, and we can be sure that this same tree will not turn up again in another bottle, whereas with the Ye family we can be equally sure that it would.
For a later version of scholars in a garden setting, although quite different from this one, see Deng Zhong'an 1993, p. 131, no. 4.22.