Nephrite; very well hollowed and carved in the form of an eggplant with two smaller fruits growing on leaves and tendrils wrapped around the body of the main fruit and forming a natural foot supporting the bottle on three points made up of two tendrils and one leaf, with a beetle crawling from the calyx onto the fruit Possibly imperial, 17501800 Height: 5.92 cm Mouth: 0.4 cm Stopper: jadeite, carved as a stalk
Condition: workshop condition
Provenance: Christie's, London, 12 October 1987, lot 343
Published: Treasury 1, no. 62
Commentary: A series of fruit-, flower-, and vegetable-form snuff bottles, mostly of white or greenish-white nephrite and sometimes with areas of brown skin, form a large and well-known group. A left-over prejudice from the days when snuff bottles were judged to a large extent by their appeal standing in a cabinet has left them generally somewhat unpopular, along with other bottles that will not stand unsupported. These are irrational prejudices, since snuff bottles were made to be viewed primarily in the hand, in use rather than standing on a flat surface, and certainly not behind glass in a cabinet. Many of the most intriguing bottles are those that only come to life in the hand, and any functional snuff bottle is better viewed this way.
Two features support the possibility of an imperial-workshop origin for this bottle. The nephrite here, despite its lovely colour, is not flawless. It has distinctive chalky-white inclusions in the greener white material that is found on other pieces more firmly attributed to the palace workshops (see, for instance, Treasury 1, no. 149). The painstaking hollowing (achieved through a tiny mouth for a normal-sized bottle) also leaves a relatively thick foot, not as thick as on some, but sufficient, particularly in relation to the superb hollowing of the upper area, to suggest a deliberate preference for a heavy foot, which we have established as a likely characteristic of the palace workshops (see discussion under Treasury 1, no. 75).
The likely period for this bottle is from the second half of the Qianlong reign. The massive supplies of nephrite that flooded into the court after the military occupation of Turkestan in 1759 resulted in an increase in the number of workshops producing for the court and almost certainly prompted renewed imperial interest, keeping the standards of workmanship and artistry at a peak well into the early nineteenth century, perhaps even into the early Daoguang period. The personal interest shown by the Qianlong emperor in his imperial collection is well known, and he is recorded as having personally examined every one of the thousands of pieces of jade carved for the collection in his own workshops and presented as tribute to him during his reign (see Yang Boda 1992). He is also recorded as having spent time during the latter part of his reign in correcting what he considered sloppy trends in both carving and taste. It is likely that a considerable proportion of extant imperial jade snuff bottles were made during the period from, say, 1760 to perhaps 1820 and even the later ones probably followed Qianlong taste to a very large extent.
We have saved the most important aspect of this bottle for last. It is unsurpassed in sheer quality of carving and fluency of realistic depiction by anything produced by a Chinese lapidary from the entire history of jade carving. Other pieces may be as good but nothing is better controlled technically or more lifelike in its detail. The subject is depicted in a miraculously realistic way that is rarely achieved in lapidary work. Every aspect of the work of art represents sheer mastery both of realistic representation and the techniques required to turn it into convincing sculpture. It is the lapidary equivalent of a Castiglione painting, where one marvels at the ability of the artist to depict reality with such an astonishing combination of meticulously correct, lifelike detail and artistic grace. The gnarled branches, curling and drooping leaves and weighty fruit hanging from the severed branch are completely convincing despite the lack of coloured detail. The calyx on the main fruit could almost be peeled back to reveal the paler colour where the fruit has been protected from the light in growth, it is so realistic. The finish is astonishing. There is not a visible carving mark on the entire surface. The relief carving is separated from the ground plane by miraculous undercutting, and the polish is impeccable.
Although the artist is unidentified and probably doomed to eternal anonymity, carving of this quality is a signature in itself. There must be other carvings by this artist, and through them we may eventually be able to construct a little biographical flesh on the skeletal outline provided by his works. Obvious candidates in this collection are Treasury 1, nos. 63 and 65 (the latter is included in this sale), and another white jade bottle of eggplant form not very clearly illustrated in Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 28 April 1993, lot 517. If there were artists at Suzhou and in the palace workshops who were capable of this standard of carving, they would almost certainly have come to the emperor's attention and been put to work for him. The quality of this bottle raises another intriguing possibility. We know that with enamels, court artists prepared detailed designs for individual works of art that were then approved by the emperor himself before the enamelling commenced. This kept standards at a high level of artistry, ensured individuality, and inspired the administrators and artists involved at every stage of the work to do their utmost to produce the finest works of art. This is what separates palace enamelling at its height from the works of any other centre. It is almost certain that the same procedure applied to other selected works of art at the palace workshops, and perhaps elsewhere. If this is the case, there is no question that the result in jade carving would have been a bottle of this level of genius. Although anonymous at present, it seems appropriate to grant this artist the honour of being known as 'The Castiglione of Jade Carving' until we can grant him the greater honour of standing in history as a master under his own name.