Ivory; with a flat lip and recessed foot surrounded by a protruding flattened footrim; carved with a continuous scene of two figures, one demonic, washing an elephant, the demon pouring water from a vase over its back, while the other figure, kneeling on the beast's back, brushes it with a besom, with six Buddhist sages nearby, three standing in an attitude of prayer behind the beast, the other three in front of it, one in an attitude of prayer, one with its back to the viewer, and the other kneeling and holding a volume of books aloft with his left hand, with a flaming pearl set on the volume, all set amidst formalized clouds into which several of the figures sink up to their thighs; the neck and foot each with a band of double-unit leiwen (thunder pattern); the foot inscribed in regular script Qianlong nian zhi (Made during the Qianlong period) Imperial Master, Japan, 18541910 Height: 6.32 cm Mouth/lip: 0.8/1.9 cm Stopper: ivory, carved in the shape of a melon or gourd; original
Condition: age cracking throughout; the relief detail smoothed to some extent. General relative condition: excellent
Provenance: Edwin W. Humphreys (1979) Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, 14 and 15 March 1979, lot 116 Hugh Moss (1987)
Published: Arts of Asia, SeptemberOctober 1990, p. 91 Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 256 Kleiner 1995, no. 315 JICSBS, Autumn 2000, front cover JICSBS, Winter 2001, p. 21, fig. 82 Treasury 7, no. 1674
Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum of Singapore, November 1994January 1995 British Museum, London, JuneOctober 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, JulyNovember 1997
Commentary: Although there is no moulded porcelain counterpart to this design, the form is typical of that genre, as is the varying but not excessive relief carving. As we have observed on other Japanese snuff bottles, the reign mark is orientated in the wrong way (it should be turned 90 degrees so its base abuts one of the main sides), but it is one of the finest of the entire group. Most of the Imperial Master's carvings follow the form and varying relief of the imperial moulded porcelain bottles that inspired them, although the majority have no known counterpart in porcelain. What they have in common is the style of the moulded porcelain bottles combined with spectacular quality, both artistically and technically. This, one of the finest of all his works, is enhanced by a lovely subject that is not only unique but also extremely impressive sculpturally. The final masterly touch is to place the entire scene on one of the most spectacular cloud-grounds known in the snuff-bottle arts, suggesting a heavenly setting. The roiling clouds are particularly well carved and lively, but the concept of suggesting the body weight of the more mature figures by sinking their lower bodies into the folds of the clouds is a masterstroke. It is only the kneeling servant, a younger, smaller boy, who rests on the surface of the clouds (although one other attendant rests on the elephant, of course). This is, again, an expression of the genius of the Japanese carver, since on original moulded porcelain bottles, and on most Chinese snuff bottles where figures are set on clouds to suggest their immortal or deified status, they tend to stand on them rather than in them.
The stopper is obviously the original and of typical melon or gourd shape. Like others of the group, it retains an integral ivory 'cork' and, although separate and set into a hole drilled in the 'cork', what appears to be the original spoon as well. The ivory 'cork' is fitted precisely to the inner neck, precluding the possibility of a thin lining of cork or fabric to give it greater grip and sealing power. Some early imperial Chinese bottles have 'corks' of the same material as the stopper (for instance, on the ivory stoppers that were the originals for several series of Tang Ying bottles from the early Qianlong reign; Sale 1, lot 27 is one example ), but unless they were screw-fitted, they were made narrow enough to allow the addition of a thin sliver of cork or fabric to tighten the fit.
The subject here has often appeared in religious paintings, although the precise meaning of washing an elephant had become obscure by the Yuan dynasty. Based on inscriptions by Ming painters who chose the subject, however, we know that washing an elephant (xiang) was regarded as a visual pun to mean expunging all illusions (xiang). Some Ming Buddhist texts tied to pictures of Puxian (Japanese, Fugen; one of the assistants of the Buddha) washing the white elephant on which he rides take a different view, saying that the white elephant being washed cannot be made whiter, and the water used to wash it cannot be made any cleaner; this is an expression of the old idea that we are enlightened but, failing to see it, never realize our Buddha-nature.