An inside-painted glass 'Zhang Zhidong' snuff bottle
Ma Shaoxuan, Ox Street district, Beijing, dated 1909 Sold with accompanying watercolour by Peter Suart 6.67cm high.
Treasury 4, no. 593
An inside-painted glass 'Zhang Zhidong' snuff bottle
Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a concave lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a protruding rounded footrim; painted on one side with an ink portrait of Zhang Zhidong wearing a fur hat and a winter coat, the other main side inscribed in clerical script with '[May you enjoy] great wealth as well as longevity', preceded in regular script with the date 'Summer, fifth month of the year jiyou', and followed by the signature Ma Shaoxuan, with one seal of the artist, Shaoxuan, in negative seal script Ma Shaoxuan, Studio for Listening to the Qin, Ox Street district, Beijing, fifth month, 1909 Height: 6.67 cm Mouth/lip: 0.62/1.66 cm Stopper: aquamarine; gilt-silver collar
Condition: Bottle: mouth slightly irregular, possible minor polishing. Painting: minor snuff staining, otherwise studio condition
Provenance: Hugh Moss Private Collection Christie's, London, 12 October 1987, lot 322
Published: Chinese Snuff Bottles No. 2, p. 44, fig. 7 Arts of Asia, SeptemberOctober 1978, p. 59 Antiques Trade Gazette, 7 November 1987, p. 18 Christie's International Magazine, SeptemberOctober 1987, p. 29 JICSBS, Winter 1987, p. 29 Lyle Official Antiques Review 1989, p. 729 Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 342 Kleiner 1995, no. 417 Ma Zengshan 1997, p. 61, fig. 51 Treasury 4, no. 593
Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum, Singapore, November 1994February 1995 British Museum, London, JuneNovember 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, JulyNovember 1997 Christie's, London, 1999
Zhang Zhidong (18371909) came from a line of officials going back at least to his great-grandfather, all of whom had served under Qing emperors. He received a first-class classical education and was placed first in the list of those who sat for their juren degree in 1852. In 1863, he passed the metropolitan examination for his jinshi degree, where his unusual choice of recent events and mode of writing puzzled the examiners, dividing them as to how his paper should be treated. The paper was referred to the Empress Dowager for final judgment, and Zhang was ranked among the top three scholars to pass. In 1879 Zhang had worked his way up through the ranks to be appointed a tutor in the Imperial Academy, from which position he was able to bring himself to the attention of the Empress Dowager by submitting an obsequious but brilliant memorial to the throne on the subject of a notable recent suicide. From then on, his career took him to various parts of the country as he increased his prestige and dealt with various problems, including a treaty with the French over Annam, the planning of major trunk railways in the interior of China, and the governor-generalship of various provinces. He was also involved in the industrialization of China and various infrastructure projects, and seems to have been a radical reformer wherever he went, improving defences, waterways, industry, and education, sending many students abroad to study, particularly to Japan. He was usually in opposition to Li Hongzhang (1823 1907), one of the most famous statesmen of his day and also the subject of a Ma portrait and one by Ziyizi (Curtis 1980, pp. 17). Li tended towards conciliation with the enemies of China, who were many at the time, while Zhang pressed for a strong military response to maintain China's prestige and sovereignty, urging that both be defended to the bitter end. Zhang managed to ride out the difficulties of the defeat by Japan in 1894 and 1895 and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and emerged with even greater prestige at court in their aftermath, being appointed Junior Guardian to the Heir Apparent. In 1907 he scaled the final pinnacle to become Grand Secretary and Grand Councillor. In 1908, the deaths of the Empress Dowager and the emperor and the subsequent dismissal by the Prince Regent of such able officials as Yuan Shikai and Duanfang (see Sale 2, lot 154) left Zhang as the most eminent figure in the declining Manchu regime, but by then he was ageing and already exhausted by a long and strenuous career. He died in October 1909.
This is another of Ma's portraits where two almost identical versions exist, each in a similarly shaped glass bottle, although in this case, unlike Sale 2, lot 154, they have different inscriptions and were done two years apart. The other is illustrated in Curtis 1980, p. 9, figs. 11 and 12. On p. 8 she illustrates the photograph from which both portraits were taken, which offers considerable insight into Ma's art of transforming photographs into portraits.
We once wondered why another Zhang Zhidong bottle was deemed necessary two years after his death, but the answer is clear when one reads the inscriptions. This bottle was painted five months before Zhang died; its conventional wishes for wealth and long life would have seemed innocuous at the time. But, after his death, something different was needed. Although he was an opportunist on occasion, Zhang's conduct as a whole personified the Confucian ideals of contentment in poverty and honest integrity. He was frugal and honest, and is said to have died a poor man. Thus, the inscription on the 1911 bottle is far more appropriate: 'He was indifferent to fame and profit and so his strength of will shown forth; he maintained serenity and so his influence was far-reaching'.
The qualities of this extraordinary statesman are captured here magnificently. This is another example where Ma has used white paint as well as left-over space to act as white. There is white paint used in the beard, and a very pale wash highlights areas of the coat (see discussion under Treasury 4, no. 607, not included in our online commentary for the bottle, Sale 3, lot 9). It is also another example where the calligraphy is not as impressive as it might be, although it hardly seems conceivable that Ma would have family members inscribe his all-important portrait bottles for him.