A pale turquoise porcelain carved 'landscape' snuff bottle
Chen Guozhi, Jingdezhen, 18201860 7.42cm high.
Treasury 6, no. 1353
Pale turquoise-blue and colourless glaze on porcelain; with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; carved with a continuous mountain scene with towering peaks, on one side depicting an elaborate residence set amid firs or pines above a waterfall dropping straight into a large body of water extending around the bottle to the left, where a scholar stands with this walking staff on the narrow side, gazing at the fall, while behind him, on the other main side, two dwellings nestle beneath trees behind which more mountains rise; the foot engraved in regular script Chen Guozhi zuo (Made by Chen Guozhi); the exterior surfaces except the footrim covered with a pale turquoise-blue glaze; the interior with a colourless glaze. Chen Guozhi, Jingdezhen, 18201860 Height: 7.42 cm Mouth/lip: 0.59/1.39 cm Stopper: coral; turquoise collar Condition: slight abrasion to the lip from stopper wear, otherwise perfect condition
Provenance: Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (1969) Elizabeth and Ladislas Kardos Sotheby's, New York, 1 July 1985, lot 5 Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd. (1986)
Exhibited: Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987 Creditanstalt, Vienna, MayJune 1993 Galeries Lafayette, Paris, April 1990
Commentary: Chen Guozhi was one of great masters of porcelain carving and, as we noted in Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993 under no. 249, a little of his career can be gleaned from nineteenth-century literary sources. The following account appears in Zhao Zhiqian's book on snuff and snuff bottles of the late nineteenth century (in Richard John Lynn's 1991 translation, with slight modification):
There was a certain Chen Guozhi, a native of Qimen, who carved porcelain bottles with the technique of the painter, so pieces by him are absolutely unique in the whole world. I once saw a bottle of his on which he had carved five bats flying up and down and fluttering about, just as they might appear in an album of paintings done by the Song-era Painting Academy. Later he came to grief because he had told off the brigands [i.e., the Taipings, who took Jingdezhen in 1861]. Works by his own hand are now almost all scattered and lost, and although there are others who try to imitate his work, no one ever manages to match it.
Zhao was a noted painter and calligrapher; coming from him, this is high praise indeed for the work of a porcelain craftsman who was, almost certainly, not from the scholar class.
Jin Wuxiang, who published his Suxiang suibi (Casual jottings amid the fragrance of grain) in the Guangxu period (cited in Elegance in Relief, p. 21) wrote as follows:
During the Daoguang reign, there was a man of the town [Jingdezhen] called Chen Guozhi, who painted in colours and carved porcelain. Of great renown at this time, his work was never lightly undertaken, every piece being valued at ten pieces of gold. A magistrate by the name of Jiang Juting presented him with a calligraphy couplet reading 'Earth and clay turned to gold and jade; a man in plain cloth becomes of royal rank'.
That Chen also worked as an enameller is supported by one surviving enamelled plaque (Elegance in Relief, p. 51, fig. 5, dated to 1847). It is signed both in regular script and in a seal and accompanied by the artist's alternative name, Pingzhai probably his studio name. This alternate name also appears on his carved wares; see Elegance in Relief, no. 2, a magnificent brush pot decorated with the Eight Immortals and inscribed as commissioned by a certain Shenbao.
In the Guwan zhinan (Handbook of Chinese Antiquity) of 1943, Chen Guozhi is noted as a 'refined artisan and skilful workman'. Chen is also mentioned in the Jingdezhen taoci shigao (Draft history of Jingdezhen porcelains; cited in Au Hang 1993, p. 228):
Chen Guozhi, from Qimen, Anhui province, was a renowned porcelain carver in Jingdezhen during the Daoguang and Xianfeng reigns. His works are explicit and outstanding, always with a sense of painting felt within his delicate carvings; and his works imitating wood, bamboo and ivory, normally glazed in colour are particularly life-like.
Dated wares exist from as late as 1858 (Hugh Moss Records).
It is possible that the wares signed with the assumed name, Xinquan, may also be early works by Chen (see under Treasury 6, no. 1351), in which case he was active for an unusually long time, producing a wide range of scholarly works of art, including brush pots and other accoutrements for the scholar's table. His works survive in biscuit porcelain and in a variety of glaze or enamel colours. There is even a small box and cover for seal-paste ink in the beige porcelain, typical of the mid-Qing period, that causes a creamy, crackled glaze (Moss 1983, no. 103). Some of his wares bear a reign mark as well as his name. These establish him as working in both the Daoguang and Xianfeng eras, and possibly for the court, which would not be surprising given his prominence at the time and the quality of his carvings. A Daoguang-marked brush pot in the Baur Collection (Ayers 1974, plate A658), even incorporates his name within the same seal script, eight-character mark as the reign name. In the Fung Ping Shan exhibition in 1978 there were two brush pots by him (Exhibition of Carved Porcelain, nos. 3 and 4), one in biscuit porcelain, the other glazed pale purple, together with a seal-paste box and cover, also biscuit (no. 57). Another brush pot, with an unusual dark olive-green glaze decorated with a stork in the branches of a pine tree was in Christie's, South Kensington, 14 November 2002, lot 386. One of Chen's most impressive brush pots is also in the Bloch Collection (see Treasury 6, Treasury 6, no. 1353, figs. 1 and 2). On it Chen gives his place of origin as Xianyuan. Although some sources say he came from Qimen, Chen himself inscribed that he came from Xianyuan, also in Anhui province (but about 90 km to the northeast of Qimen as the crow flies, coincidentally about the same distance as Jingdezhen is to the southwest, across the border in Jiangxi). A branch of the Chen family had moved from Qimen to Xianyuan in the Southern Song dynasty (Wang Heming 2000, p. 573). It was certainly not uncommon in Chinese history for an individual to sometimes refer to himself as a native of the place his ancestors had lived generations in the past, so there very well may have been times when Chen Guozhi identified himself as a man of Qimen. An exceptional baluster vase at a height of 24 centimetres, one of his largest works is decorated with a peacock in a blossoming prunus tree with a long inscription in relief regular script above and his seal on the foot, all beneath a creamy-white glaze (Arts of Asia, JanuaryFebruary 1982, p. 47). A snuff bottle signed Chen Guozhi and featuring mottled, emerald green glaze imitating jadeite, is in Rachelle R. Holden 1994, no. 73 (inexplicably attributed to the imperial kilns as well as to the school of Wang Bingrong), and one with a pale, lime-green glaze is in Au Hang 1993. Other pieces by Chen are in Miller and Hui 2006, indexed on p. 341, although one is an acknowledged twentieth-century work and not by him despite the signature, and one or two others are questionable. (In the case of no. 96, for instance, it seems that the authors themselves were uncertain of its authenticity. It is dated in the catalogue to 18211874, the terminal date being about a decade after Chen's death. By Chen's standards it is a pedestrian carving, and perhaps the clue to its real date is offered by no. 98 in the same publication, where an identical scene in similar style and to the same standard bears an honest Guangxu reign mark.) Chen was faked, certainly after his lifetime and possibly during it, and a number of inferior works are known signed with his name. Several of these are of rather small compressed ovoid or rounded-rectangular forms, all with a distinctly late-nineteenth century appearance, a pedestrian level of art, and often rather scruffy glazes (see for instance Sotheby's, New York, 23 March 1998, lot 85).
On the present example, the detailed literati landscape transformed into porcelain is typical of one range of Chen's output, as is the use of a pale pastel application of glaze or enamel directly onto the biscuit. From this single bottle it is easy to see why he should have been singled out from perhaps a dozen or more individual porcelain carvers of the mid-century as being exceptional. As a rule, Chen did not repeat his compositions, as befits the best of artists, and this is generally true of the nineteenth century porcelain carvers in general. In this particular case, however, Chen Guozhi did: at the home of Kenneth Brown in La Jolla, California, in the late 1960s, Moss photographed another version of this composition in white glazed porcelain (Treasury 6, no. 1353, fig. 1). The differences between this bottle and that are minor. That bottle had an original stopper, suggesting that many of these carved porcelain bottles were made with such stoppers but have lost them in the intervening years.
For other bottles by Chen, see China Guardian, Beijing, 24 October 1996, lot 23 (a biscuit landscape); Souksi 2000, no. 93 (with a bird in the branches of a tree and an imitation-jadeite glaze); JICSBS, June 1976, p. 11, figs. 19a19c (two pale yellow- glazed landscape bottles from the Cussons Collection); Drouot (Millon-Jutheau), Paris, 22 October 1981, lot 49, (an unglazed landscape design); Kleiner 1990, no. 153 (depicting scholars in an interior setting with a glaze simulating jadeite), and Sotheby's, New York, 23 April 1981, lot 84 (the mark was noted but not deciphered; but it was a similar bottle, presumably by him, with a pale yellow glaze).