An inside-painted rock-crystal 'Zhong Kui' snuff bottle
Ye Zhongsan, the Apricot Grove Studio, Chongwen district, Beijing, dated 1897 6.41cm high.
Treasury 4, no. 516
An inside-painted rock-crystal 'Zhong Kui' snuff bottle
Crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding rounded footrim; painted with a continuous scene of Zhong Kui, the demon-queller, seated in a sedan chair carried by two attendant demons while others form the rest of his retinue, two carrying lanterns inscribed with the two characters, jinshi ('presented scholar'), and two more carrying gongs, one carelessly having just dropped his hammer, the other playfully putting the gong on his head, his hammer hanging from a strap on his wrist, with a seventh demon kneeling with what appears to be a rattle held out in front of him, all set on swirling clouds, inscribed in draft script 'Painted by Ye Zhongsan at the capital in an autumn month of the year dingyou', with one seal of the artist, huayin ('painting seal'), in negative seal script Ye Zhongsan, the Apricot Grove Studio, Chongwen district, Beijing, autumn, 1897 Height: 6.41 cm Mouth/lip: 0.59/1.62 and 1.54 cm. (oval) Stopper: stained bone; pearl finial; ivory collar
Condition: Bottle: chip to the outer lip, small chip to the foot; one natural icy flaw rising from the base through the attendant demons. Painting: barely visible snuff staining; otherwise, studio condition
Provenance: Robert Hall (1985)
Published: Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 328 and dust-jacket cover Treasury 4, no. 516
Exhibited: Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum, Singapore, November 1994February 1995 Christie's, London, 1999
Inspired by a lovely crystal bottle, Ye has created one of his finest versions of this subject. Although of the brighter, opaque colouring so typical of his standard figure paintings, it is delightful without being strident. The cloud-setting for this popular hero is also as spectacular as any he ever painted, the opaque white colour offsetting the pastel colours of the figures and their clothing. Being one of his finest works from the early period, it is, as usual, combined with the more complex seal, huayin ('painting seal'), seen also on Sale 1, lot 71. Another feature of his earlier works is the writing of the character Ye. The grass radical at the top is clearly written and separate; as he wrote it more often, it became more cursive and was painted as a single element (see, for instance, Treasury 4, no. 518, from 1898, where the cursive form appears). 1898 seems to have been the transitional year from the more regular form to the cursive, and from then on it is the latter that becomes standard.
This is another crystal bottle where we can be reasonably certain that it was made specifically for painting, since it rarely occurs as a plain early crystal bottle in a form as flattened as this, but frequently enough during the Beijing school to suggest that it was made to order by the artists.
Zhong Kui became entrenched in Chinese mythology as the Protector Against Evil Spirits and was, therefore, frequently evoked in a superstitious society. According to E. T. C. Werner (Dictionary of Chinese Mythology, first published in 1932), legend has it that the Tang emperor Minghuang (713756) fell ill with a fever while on a military expedition to Mount Li in Shanxi province. While feverish, he dreamed that he saw a small demon fantastically dressed in red trousers, with a shoe on one foot and the other hanging from his girdle. He broke into the palace, and began to create mischief. The emperor grew angry and questioned him. 'Your humble servant' he replied, 'is named Xuhao ('Emptiness and Devastation').' The emperor said he had never heard of such a person, to which the demon rejoined, 'Xu means to desire emptiness, because in emptiness one can fly as one wishes; hao changes people's joy to sadness.' The emperor, annoyed by such flippancy, was on the point of calling his guards when in walked Zhong Kui, who grabbed the mischievous demon, poked out one of his eyes, and ate it. When asked who he was, Zhong Kui explained that he was a physician from Zhongnan shan in Shaanxi province and that during the reign of the Tang emperor Gaozu (618627) he was ignominiously rejected and unjustly defrauded of a first class in the public examinations. Overwhelmed with shame, he had committed suicide on the steps of the palace. The emperor, moved by the finality of his protest, ordered him buried with full pomp and ceremony in the green robes reserved for imperial burials. Out of gratitude, Zhong Kui swore to protect all future sovereigns in any part of the empire against the evil machinations of the demon Xuhao. At these words, the emperor awoke to find himself free of the fever and restored to full health. Another version says that Zhong Kui's essay was recognized by examiners as equal to the work of the best authors of antiquity, but that the emperor rejected him on account of his extreme ugliness. When he committed suicide in the emperor's presence, he was then awarded the honour of an imperial funeral. Either way, he became forever associated with the quelling of demons.
The characters on the lanterns carried here represent the title Zhong Kui should have received as a successful examination candidate.
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