Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a concave lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a protruding rounded footrim; painted with a continuous composition of a pair of swallows flying above a pond with two ducks swimming beneath lotuses, inscribed in draft script 'Executed at the capital by Yan Yutian in the year yiwei', with a token seal Yan Yutian, Chongwen district, Beijing, 1895 Height: 6.7 cm Mouth/lip: 0.6/1.6 cm Stopper: tourmaline; vinyl collar
Condition: bottle's footrim slightly uneven, possibly the result of the removal of small chips, but possibly just a slightly careless Boshan blank glass bottle; one insignificant, miniscule chip on the footrim; painting in studio condition
Provenance: Arts of China (1987) Hugh M. Moss Ltd (1987)
Published: Treasury 4, no. 617
Commentary: This is a subject Yan Yutian produced many times, but always with a different composition. It appears several times from 1895, on two or three examples from 1898, and on a few undated works. It appears to have been a staple throughout his career, although this is difficult to judge accurately with such long gaps between dated bottles. It is usually impressive, and the subject, with its endless potential for variation, ideally suited Yan's innate sense of composition. It is very easy to allow a complex subject of this sort to become confused. With so many leaves, stems, grassy reeds, and flowers, a less sure compositional touch would tend to lose coherence. Yan never does, and this is a splendid example of one of his finest subjects composed to perfection. It also has an unusual use of a pale blue wash added to his usual palette. This is a colour he often added to his palette for this subject, and he has used it to help avoid the confusion of his subject matter. By alternating the leaves from sepia to ink washes, to blue, he separates them as abstract forms, making the busy composition more cohesive. It is not unlike the exercise of calligraphy, where each character must be harmoniously constructed in its own right, but must equally balance with those around it. This formal game is continued, of course, over the entire composition, but we are unable to read it all at once as we have to turn the bottle to see one side or the other. The focus, of course, of all Yan's inherent, abstract formal sensibility, lies in the pair of ducks on one side and the pair of birds on the other. Both groups are superbly painted and serve to define Yan's place in the art form as a whole. He was one of those artists who never deigned to copy someone else's style, despite having been inspired by Zhou Leyuan and others, including Ye Zhongsan. Yan's style is highly individual, quite unlike any other artist's, totally confident and impressive, and if we judge the artist by his best works, as we have had to with Ma Shaoxuan and others, he deserves better shrift as an artist than he has been granted over the years. The common perception that he is a minor, repetitive, commercial artist of little merit is unwarranted. The bottles in this collection alone would serve to dispel the impression that he is an artist of little merit. His eccentric, wholly confident, and individualistic style deserves greater recognition than it has had so far.