Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a concave lip and recessed, convex foot surrounded by a protruding, rounded footrim; painted on one main and two narrow sides with Cao Cao on a white horse pleading for mercy from Guan Yu at a rocky pass, the other main side inscribed with a poetic description of the event in regular script, preceded by the date 'Executed in an autumn month in the year jiayin at the capital' and followed by the signature Ma Shaoxuan, with one seal of the artist, Shaoxuan, in negative seal script Family of Ma Shaoxuan, Beijing, autumn, 1914 Height: 5.38 cm Mouth/lip: 0.52/1.5 cm Stopper: tourmaline; vinyl collar
Condition: Bottle: very minor surface wear. Painting: studio condition
Provenance: Drouot (Millon-Jutheau), Paris, 6 November 1983, lot 61 Belfort Collection (1986)
Published: Chinese Snuff Bottles No. 2, p. 19, Pl. F Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 340 Treasury 4, no. 595
Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum, Singapore, November 1994February 1995 Christie's, London, 1999
Commentary This is one of the family's masterpieces of the decorative style. Basically an illustration for a popular book, the style is well suited to the subject. The Sanguo yanyi ('Romance of the Three Kingdoms') is a novel about the contentions among the three rival kingdoms of Wei, Shu, and Wu. The poem relates an event from the novel:
Having been defeated, Cao Man fled by way of Huarong, Where he and Guan Yu could not avoid confronting each other. Bound by ties of mutual affection established in earlier times, [Guan was obliged to] open the metal lock to set free this kraken.
The first line refers to Cao Cao (155220) by his childhood name, A-man. In 208, Cao Cao, who was to become founder of the state of Wei during the ensuing Three Kingdoms period, retreated to his headquarters at Xuchang by way of Huayong after he had lost a major battle at Red Cliff. However, his plan had already been anticipated by Zhuge Liang (181234), who sent troops ahead to lie in wait for Cao and, although knowing Guan Yu (d. 219) had personal connections with Cao Cao, assigned him to capture Cao Cao on the basis of Guan Yu's pledge of unflinching loyalty. When Cao Cao was escorted home by his remaining seventy-two military personnel, he was ambushed by Guan Yu and his soldiers. Cao pleaded with Guan to spare his life by reminding Guan of the kindness he had shown him in former times. Guan was moved and set him free, much to the consternation of Zhuge Liang when he learned of Cao's escape.
Ma's nephew, Ma Shaoxian, painted subjects similar to this, and the rocks and trees growing on them are very much in his best style. We know that by the early twentieth century, Shaoxian (Ma's nephew, who we believe worked with him in his studio for most of his career) could write long inscriptions in regular script in the style of his uncle, although not as well, and this may have been his work under Shaoxuan's signature. There are certain distinctive similarities between this and known works of 1914 by Shaoxian. This is particularly noticeable in the signature and the writing of the first and second characters.
One problem we have is that although we can perhaps identify the hand of Ma Shaoxian in this painting, we have little or no stylistic reference for Ma's brothers who trained in the art, and for his son, all of whom seem to have devoted their entire careers, the lengths of which are also unknown, working under their more prominent relative's signature. With Ma Shaoxian, however, we have a body of dated works, and may be able to get closer to identifying his paintings under Shaoxuan's name. Shaoxian may have been the best of the family painters other than Shaoxuan himself, which prompted him presumably to work under his own name so often, but we have no real evidence to support this supposition. Ma's brothers and son may have been equally skilled and quite willing to sublimate their own art for the commercial ends of the family business.