Sun Xingwu, dated 1899 Sold with accompanying watercolor by Peter Suart. 6.05cm high.
Treasury 4, no. 569
The Teacher Returns
Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a concave lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a protruding rounded footrim; painted on one main side with a teacher returning to his study to find his five students playing blindman's buff, a table behind them set with an open book, other volumes of books, an inkstone, a brush pot with brushes, and a water pot, the wall behind hung with a landscape painting flanked by a calligraphic couplet, the first of the two showing only the last two characters, zhiji, 'a friend who truly understands one', while the second is complete and reads Qin shu jiu youren, 'The qin, books, old friends', the other main side with a collection of four paintings and a calligraphic specimen, the folding fan, without its frame, at the top of a landscape, inscribed in draft script 'Painted at the capital', with one illegible seal, a round fan painted with two fan-tailed goldfish among aquatic plants, inscribed 'Executed by Sun Xingwu in the year jihai', followed by one seal of the artist, yin ('seal'), in positive seal script, a folded painting of bamboo and rocks, inscribed in draft script 'Executed by Banqiao', with one illegible seal, and a rubbing of a four-character phrase, xianzhong yile ('An enjoyable pastime practised during leisure hours'), written in clerical script Sun Xingwu, Beijing, 1899 Height: 6.05 cm Mouth/lip: 0.6/1.72 cm Stopper: glass; vinyl collar
Condition: Bottle: tiny chips possibly removed from outer lip, which is very slightly bevelled; the same with inner lip, which is neatly bevelled, but there are no remaining traces of chips; one tiny, insignificant chip in footrim. Painting: some unobtrusive minor smudging and some spoon scratches. General relative condition: Reasonably good
Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum, Singapore, November 1994February 1995 Christie's, London, 1999
Commentary: This is one of Sun Xingwu's most unusual works, and his only known version of the subject of the naughty children playing while their teacher is out of the room. The subject was first painted by Zhou Leyuan in 1895 (Treasury 4, no. 471) and taken up by Ye Zhongsan in 1896 (Treasury 4, no. 512) and either artist's version may have inspired Sun to paint this one. However, the composition of his version is quite different from either Zhou's or Ye's. Indeed, in terms of the painting of the children, it is a finer work than Zhou's. It is combined with another extremely rare composition for Sun of various paintings and documents, a subject he appears to have painted only once before, a version from 1896 from the Michael Kaynes Collection. Three years on, this one is more sophisticated and, combined with the rare subject of the other side so charmingly painted, becomes one of Sun's masterpieces.
It is clear in this context that 'Painted at the capital' on the folding fan should be read as Sun Xingwu's notation to accompany his own signature, which appears on the circular fan with fish. In contrast, the signature 'Banqiao' on the album with bamboo and rocks refers to Zheng Xie (16931765), one of the 'Eccentric Masters of Yangzhou' and an artist who specialized in the depiction of orchids, bamboo, and rocks.
1899 was a peak year for Sun, both in terms of the number of bottles remaining extant and their consistently high quality. The records show three bottles from 1894; six from 1895; seven from 1896; four from 1897; seven again from 1898, and eleven from 1899. From his last year of painting, in 1900, there is only one extant work, dated to the fifth month. It shows not the slightest hint of a decline in quality; in fact it is among his masterpieces, suggesting that he may have passed away at the height of his powers shortly after painting that bottle.
In common with so many of the glass bottles of the Beijing artists, most of Sun's works are painted inside bottles like this, the typical Beijing shape. It was available as a standard in Beijing from the early 1880s until well into the twentieth century; when other shapes are used, it can indicate that the artist is not in Beijing (see discussion under Treasury 4, no. 557).