An inside-painted glass 'Tan Xinpei in the role of Qin Qiong' snuff bottle
Meng Zishou, Beijing, probably 1905 or 1906 4.37cm high.
Treasury 4, no. 633
A glass inside-painted portrait snuff bottle
Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a slightly concave lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a protruding rounded footrim; painted on one main side with a portrait of Tan Xinpei in the role of Qin Qiong, set in an oval frame, the other main side with a horse standing beside a stream beneath a wind-blown willow tree, with hills and mountains in the background, inscribed in regular script with the title 'One steed and a windblown willow,' followed by the signature Meng Zishou and one seal of the artist, shou (sketchily rendered), in negative seal script Meng Zishou, Beijing, probably 1905 or 1906 Height: 4.37 cm Mouth/lip: 0.49/1.20 cm Stopper: tourmaline; vinyl collar
Condition: Bottle: workshop condition Painting: studio condition
Exhibited: Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987 Creditanstalt, Vienna, MayJune 1993 Christie's, London, 1999
Meng Zishou painted a number of portraits of Tan Xinpei in various roles, and although in some of them he copied compositions already established, in several he did not. This is an example of Tan Xinpei in the role of Qin Qiong that is quite different from that established by Ma Shaoxuan (see Treasury 4, no. 605) and does not appear to have been repeated by Meng among his seven known Beijing-opera bottles. Qin Qiong was an extraordinarily successful and loyal general who aided the founder of the Tang dynasty, but at one point he found himself ill and running out of money. He finally sold his 'double mace' (shuang jian, a weapon generally used in pairs for close fighting, the 'business end' having four flat sides and being much slimmer than the translation 'mace' would suggest; it could be thrust into an opponent or swung at him). Then, as the ultimate last resort, he tried to sell his horse. Tan Xinpei's operatic performance of this hero in dire straits is one of the high points of Peking Opera.
On the other main side, the subject of a windswept horse beneath a willow tree is one of Meng's own. Meng painted a number of horses among his output, despite not being very good at painting them, and the compositions are usually of his own devising.
The surface meaning of the four-character title, Yijun fengliu, describes one (yi) fine or swift horse (jun) standing under a wind (feng)-blown willow (liu), which is the subject of the painting. There is also a hidden message, however, in the rebus '[You are just as talented as] a (yi) spirited (fengliu) steed (jun).'
Although it is not dated, we suspect this was painted in either 1905 or 1906. In 1905, Meng painted at least three other portraits, whereas there are no other dated examples recorded between then and 1911, when he did two more, and in 1906 he seems to have started to do miniatures as a standard part of his repertoire. Meng makes little attempt here at a serious portrait of Tan Xinpei; the basic features are there, but this is more of a cartoon portrait than a portrait in the same sense that Ma Shaoxuan or Ziyizi portrayed Tan. Since we know that Meng could do photographic portraits to a very high standard if he chose to (see Sale 2, lot 59), this seems to be another indication that, as an artist, Meng was not often inspired to rise above the commercial minimum. If the subject was Tan Xinpei, that was enough to sell the bottle.
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