School of the Imperial Master, Japan, 18541910 7.62cm high.
Treasury 7, no. 1687
A carved cinnabar lacquer figural snuff bottle
Cinnabar-red, green, and yellow-ochre lacquer on brass; with a flat lip and slightly recessed foot, surrounded by a protruding, convex footrim; carved with three layers of colour, red on green on yellow-ochre, to varying depths, with a panel on each main side, one depicting two female deities standing beside a canopied two-wheeled chariot drawn by a stag, a male servant at the lower right holding an elaborate staff with a beribboned, multi-tasselled medallion inscribed with the character ling (command) in regular script, and two female attendants, one standing behind the chariot, the other beside the stag with a whip in her hand, all on a flat plane of ground with a willow tree growing from it and framed at the bottom by rocks and a small tree in the foreground and ending about halfway up the panel at a body of water whose upper margin is concealed by the willow branches and clouds, the other main side depicting a pavilion on stilts in a lotus pond, the shore of which is bordered on the right by a pine tree and a convoluted rock formation and on the bottom by foreground rocks and foliage, with a low fence indicated by the water and formalized clouds swirling above the scene, with two female deities standing and gazing at another female in the pavilion, a male servant standing up to his knees in the water beside the pavilion, the flat foreground and water on both sides carved with the appropriate formalized diaper patterns; each main panel surrounded by a frame of leiwen (thunder pattern); the narrow sides each featuring a hybrid dragon above formalized clouds and waves, with chi-like heads, scales, and five claws, one going up the bottle, one going down; the neck with a band of double-unit leiwen above a shoulder mantle of pendant formalized petals, repeated around the outer footrim; the foot inscribed in regular script, Qianlong nian zhi (Made during the Qianlong period); the lip and interior brass School of the Imperial Master, Japan, 18541910 Height: 7.62 cm Mouth/lip: 0.64/1.66 cm Stopper: cinnabar-red and green lacquer, carved as a naturalistic broad-petalled flower set on a band of small formalized petals or leaves; brass collar; original
Condition: workshop condition
Provenance: Canadian collection Christie's, New York, 29 November 1990, lot 134
Published: JICSBS, Winter 1992, front cover Eastern & Oriental Magazine, April 1994, p. 60 Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994 , no. 284 Zhao Lihong 1996,p. 113, lower left Treasury 7, no. 1687
Exhibited: Creditanstalt, Vienna, MayJune 1993 Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum of Singapore, November 1994January 1995
Commentary The present example represents the range of bottles produced by the School of the Imperial Master made entirely in lacquer. Three of the colours of lacquer he used are found here (the others being a different shade of green, black, and a very dark purplish-brown). Like several of his range of bottles either entirely of lacquer or with a significant lacquer component, the bottle is on the large size, although the extraordinary quality of the carving remains constant regardless of the scale. Characteristic is the confusion over Chinese iconography that we find so often on his works when he is not following a Chinese prototype exactly, as he did with a few of his ivory bottles based on moulded porcelain bottles.
The stopper here features a naturalistic image of a flower. Floral stoppers on imperial bottles in Chinese art were invariably formalized. As for the two scenes depicted on the bottle, they are equally confusing from the Chinese point of view. On the side with the chariot, the deer pulling the vehicle implies the involvement of Daoist deities; the elaborate coiffures of two of the women, with fenghuang ornaments above their foreheads, identify them as the principals and distinguishes them from their servants. The staff with the 'command' medallion hanging from it (a standard designation on the flag of the commander of one of the banners or Qing cavalry, but unusual as a circular medallion), is held not by a commander or soldier, but by a servant or a child, identified by his hair tied in two buns on either side of an otherwise shaven head. Elaborate hair ornaments on two of the women on the other main side suggest Daoist deities again, but they may be included based upon their significance in Japanese art, where such elaborated female headdresses are common enough.
The clearest signs of misunderstanding of the iconography are found in the two dragons. In Chinese art, the chi dragon is distinguished from the long or mang dragon by its lacking scales and possessing anywhere from one to three claws, a single horn (although sometimes with a bifid terminal), and a long, usually bifurcated tail. The long and mang dragons both have scales, two horns, anywhere from three to five claws, and a long, single tail that is merely a narrowing extension of its body, usually terminating in a star-like tuft at the end. The differences in dragons were significant in Chinese art. The chi dragon might be shown with different heads, one of which can be birdlike, but the sinuous, scale-free, elongated-feline body and other features remained reasonably constant and certainly distinguishable from long and mang beasts. Here we have a scaled, single-horned, five-clawed beast with a bifurcated tail that is neither one thing nor the other. It would have stuck out in a crowd like a bearded lady to a Chinese audience, but apparently passed muster in the market for which such bottles were made at the time.
While the dragon wavers, the reign mark here is correctly rendered. Japanese artists were familiar with the characters of Chinese regular script, as they were incorporated into more formal, written Japanese language, whereas only a few Japanese students of Chinese philology would have been equally familiar with seal script. As a rule, Japanese regular script marks are reasonably convincing, while the seal-script marks rarely are, as evidenced by the ivory works of the Imperial Master.
For another closely related example, although the median layer of green lacquer is replaced by black, see Low 2002, no. 277, which is of equally imposing size. Other examples are in Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 314 (a similarly large, three-layer bottle), no. 315 (a smaller version with three layers), no. 316 (with a black surface layer), and no. 317 (a two-layer version); Sotheby's, London, 3 December 1997, lot 466; Christie's, New York, 21 September 2000, lot 122 (another large bottle with red on black on ochre lacquer carved to depict the Eighteen Luohan), and JICSBS, Winter 1988, front cover (from the Lawrence 1996, with black on red on ochre lacquer on a metal ground).