An inside-painted rock-crystal 'calligraphy and landscape' snuff bottle
Ma Shaoxuan, Beijing, 1897 (the bottle: 17501897) Sold with accompanying watercolour by Peter Suart. 6.33cm high.
Treasury 4, no. 580
水晶內畫漁父圖鼻煙壺 壺：1750～1897 內畫：馬少宣，北京，1897年
An inside-painted rock-crystal 'landscape and figures' snuff bottle
('Five Literary Treasures')
Crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a flat lip and recessed, flat, elongated foot surrounded by a protruding, flattened footrim of the same shape; painted on one main side with a collection of fans, ink rubbings and a calligraphic specimen, and on the other main side with a river or lake-side scene with a figure in a boat beneath a clump of trees on the bank, an arched stone bridge in the middle ground, and distant sailboats and the rooftops of a country residence beyond; inscribed in regular script '[Executed] on a spring day in the year dingyou by Ma Shaoxuan for the approval of Xisan, an honourable elder acquaintance,' followed by one seal of the artist, Shao, in negative seal script Bottle: 17501897 Painting: Ma Shaoxuan, Studio for Listening to the Qin, Ox Street district, Beijing, spring, 1897 Height: 6.33 cm Mouth/lip: 0.58/1.9 cm Stopper: jadeite; vinyl collar Illustration: watercolour by Peter Suart
Condition: Material: some icy flaws natural to the stone. Bottle: possible minor nibbles removed from outer footrim, which is slightly bevelled, but it may have been made this way. Painting: studio condition
Provenance: King Feng Arts, Hong Kong (1987)
Published: Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 334 Ma Zengshan 1997, p. 48, fig. 31 Treasury 4, no. 580
Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum, Singapore, November 1994February 1995 Christie's, London, 1999
Commentary Ma first appears to have painted a series of documents in 1895 and did many more in that year and the years that followed. They may be divided into two main categories: those like this with a few individual paintings, calligraphy or rubbings neatly laid out in symmetrical order, and those where a series of often broken, burned, or fragmentary documents of a wider variety shown in a jumbled profusion. They are among Ma's most impressive paintings and those that remain in good condition are among his masterpieces. The calligraphic nature of many of the documents seems to have inspired Ma, and the subject itself is always intriguing in any case.
The identification of the five works collected on one side of the bottle is given by Ma Zengshan 1997, pp. 101103, where a more detailed version of what appears below is to be found. There are two fan paintings, one a folding fan, one a circular fan, two ink rubbings and one incomplete calligraphic work. The ink-rubbing at centre-right, alongside the circular fan painting, consists of two columns of four characters each. The phrases come from the 'Preface to the Holy Teachings,' a text composed by the Tang emperor Taizong for Xuanzhuang's (602664) translation of the Tripitaka: '[There was a Dharma master named Xuanzhuang, who was a model for the Buddhist school of thought.] When young he was focused and clever, and at an early age he understood the Three Immaterialities'. The calligraphic style comes from Wang Xizhi. The Tang monk Huairen spent twenty-four years assembling characters selected from Wang Xizhi's running-script specimens in order to present to the emperor with his work in the handwriting of the calligrapher he admired most.
The other rubbing, in the lower left-hand corner, reads 'The Palace of Nine Accomplishments [was built on the site of the Palace of Benevolence and Longevity] belonging to the Sui [dynasty].' An essay commemorating the rebuilding was later written by one of the leading calligraphers of the day, Ouyang Xun (557641), and thence transcribed into stone so that rubbings could be disseminated. The folding fan is unsigned. The circular fan is signed, but with the name of a different artist than that on the example illustrated by Ma Zengshan, which is strange, since it is obviously the same painting represented. Here the signature is Bada shanren, the hao of Zhu Da (1626 circa 1705), together with one illegible seal of the artist. This subject of a bird on a branch in this composition appears frequently on Ma's works, often as a subject in its own right, and is usually accompanied by this name, but in the version illustrated by Ma Zengshan, the signature is that of the early Qing master Yun Shouping. The calligraphy on the lower-right is an imitation of a fragment of a larger work by Pan Zuyin (18301890), an official, antique collector, and poet. The content is a poetic couplet by an eighth-century poet named Huangfu Ran. It may be translated
Where does the water outside the door flow away to? Whose house does the tree grove on the horizon surround?
There is one further illegible seal following the calligraphy, probably pretending to be a seal of Pan Zuyin, given its position and the fact that at this date Ma Shaoxuan was perfectly capable of producing a legible seal of his own if he chose to. The similar work discussed by Ma Zengshan has a poem inscribed on the back, which has allowed him to explore Ma's possible intent in this grouping of works and conclude that he was probably expressing the dedicated effort he had put into mastering the calligraphic and painting styles of past masters in order to enhance his own art. The usual symbolic content for groups of documents of the alternative kinds, which are damaged or fragmented, or represent antiquity in general is, as he points out, missing from this orderly and undamaged selection of paintings and calligraphy.
The landscape on the other main side is one of Ma's more painstaking efforts and one he does not seem to have repeated elsewhere, which is unusual. It is of the standard, delightful scene of an idealized retreat by the side of a lake or river and probably represents an idealized scholar's home in the Jiangnan region. The painting is exceptional for his landscapes, with better brushwork and more integrated texturing than usual, and a very well controlled colour wash, fading into mist, for the distant mountain range.