Ma Shaoxuan, dated 1903 (the bottle 1740-1840) 6.22cm high.
Treasury 4, no. 589
水晶內畫群兒鼻煙壺 壺：1740～1840 內畫：馬少宣，1903年
Abundant Male Progeny
Flawless crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a concave lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; the narrow sides carved with mask-and-ring handles, painted with a continuous scene of four young women seated playing a card game at a marble-topped table with children playing all around them, some acting out a lion dance, others playing with a toad tied to a string, the side with more children inscribed in regular script '[Executed by] Ma Shaoxuan in mid-autumn of the year kuimao for the approval of Shufeng, an honourable senior acquaintance', followed by one seal of the artist, Shaoxuan, in negative seal script, the side with the ladies inscribed, also in regular script, with a poem, followed by 'Again executed by Shaoxuan', with one further seal of the artist, Shao, in negative seal script
Bottle: 17401840 Painting: Ma Shaoxuan, Studio for Listening to the Qin, Ox Street district, Beijing, mid-autumn, 1903 Height: 6.22 cm Mouth/lip: 0.67/1.82 cm Stopper: tourmaline; gilt-silver collar Condition: small chip to one side of lip and upper neck rim partially polished off, leaving a small, polished indentation (area of overall compromised material 0.55 x 0.4 cm and very shallow); slightly irregular outer edge of footrim possibly indicating the removal of tiny chips. Painting: some slight snuff staining and very minor spoon scratches; some of the colours, particularly the blue, have gone speckly, which may not have been the original intention but was perhaps due to a mixture of colours separating slightly either during or after application. General relative condition: very good
Provenance: Gerd Lester Sotheby's, New York, 17 March 1997, lot 459 Published: Treasury 4, no. 489 Exhibited: Christie's, London, 1999
Commentary This is a unique subject in Ma's output and one of his finest paintings, although the calligraphy falls a little short of his finest work. The depiction of the children is masterly. Although Zhou Leyuan was the first to paint the subject of children playing, it was taken up by others, such as Sun Xingwu (see Treasury 4, no. 569) and Ye Zhongsan (see Treasury 4, no. 510), the latter so extensively that it became a standard studio subject and in cases where one hundred children were depicted, a tour-de-force. Nowhere are the children better painted than here, and we believe that Ma's familiarity by 1903 with the skills of a portraitist contributed greatly to the success of this work. Having decided to produce a masterpiece, which, as we know, Ma was capable of whenever he chose to, he has convincingly depicted every single child almost as if it is an individual portrait. Each is convincingly posed and interacts realistically with those around him. The heads are shaded to give them a realistic impression of three-dimensionality, and the hands, always difficult to paint and usually rather perfunctorily depicted in this sort of subject, are masterly. This is Ma at his finest, carefully observing, if only in his mind, the precise gesture of each hand as it would be if the child were in that particular pose. This may sound like a minimum requirement for a painting of figure subjects, but we are dealing with an art form which had become primarily decorative and commercial by the early 1900s and which was contained within a small bottle where such well-observed detail could be dispensed with in favour of an overall impression. Had Ma taken less care with the precise position of each hand and not bothered to depict them faultlessly, we would probably not have noticed, concentrating instead on the charm of the overall subject and the composition. It is because they are exceptionally finely painted that we notice.
The upper group of children is acting out a lion dance, the three on the upper-right pretending to be the lion, the larger boy holding a hand-drum above his head, while in front of them one child kneels on the ground, his hands clasped to simulate a gesture of respect and prayer. For a similar group of children playing at the same game, see Treasury 4, no. 510. The toad the children play with appears to be depicted as a three-legged toad, the familiar companion of the patron saint of commerce and financial matters, Liu Hai (see under Treasury 4, no. 525). This toad is usually shown in conjunction with a long string of cash which Liu Hai holds, and the string here, attached to the leg of the unfortunate creature, is probably intended to invoke this image and thus spice up the symbolism a little.
With a painting as detailed and carefully thought out as this, had Ma wanted to depict a four-legged toad he would, presumably, have made it quite clear.
On the other side the poetic inscription reads:
Four pretty women gather together to while away the summer in their secluded living quarters. Their looks are comparable with gorgeous flowers; their manner quite different [from the ordinary]. More precious [however, are the little boys wearing] colourful [clothes] dancing about beneath their knees. [Their] abundant sons are here included in this picture.
Although the composition illustrates how the womenfolk of the upper class spend their leisure time, the underlying message is made clear by the poem that what is really being depicted is motherhood and the production of many sons. These four appear to have been extremely successful in this endeavour, since they have sixteen children between them.