The Art of Painting Snuff Bottles
A big world is depicted inside small, inch-sized snuff bottles. Viewers marvel at these exquisite works with wonder.
Clear and translucent, snuff bottles used to be a symbol of social status and appearance. They were given by emperors as presents, enjoyed by nobility as luxuries and presented as special gifts on important social occasions. Of all the pocket-sized works of art that involve more than one traditional Chinese craft, snuff bottles are undoubtedly best known for their diversity of materials used, design and exquisite workmanship.
Chinese “inside painting” first appeared in snuff bottles, which were painted with landscapes, figures and bustling street life on the inside. In that bygone era, such paintings were called “works of spirits,” for they were believed to be too complicated to be created by human hands. Others believed that in order to create such a painting, the painter must be lying on the ground. In truth, the snuff bottle is held in the painter’s hand as the work is created.
Inside painting as a craft came to be during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) over 200 years ago. Its emergence is inseparable from the production of transparent glass and the skills and technology to create hollow cavities. Glass, crystal, citrine, amber, and transparent and light- coloured agate are all materials commonly used in making inside-painted snuff bottles. Regardless of their value, all these materials are clear and transparent. By polishing the inside
wall with grains of iron sand or emery powder mixed with water, artisans produce a frosted surface similar to rice paper that is perfect for painting— even with refracted light, the paintings aren’t affected at all. When completed, the painted animals and birds look very vivid, and the girls undeniably graceful.
Superb craftsmanship is required for inside painting. To paint inside a small snuff bottle, the artist must use a specially-made pen or brush with a fine hook-shaped tip. The brush is dipped in paint, and strokes are made on the inside wall in reverse. An artist must have very solid painting skills— the small mouth of the bottle and its narrow interior cavity make it difficult to freely move the brush, let alone actually see where the brush is going. This type of painting necessitates a bold, yet cautious hand. Skilled inside painting artists seem to have an innate talent for giving full play to their bold imagination while being meticulous in their work’s details. With such traditional Chinese art subjects as figures, landscape, flowers and birds all coming to life inside the humbleyet- exquisite snuff bottle that hardly takes up half a palm, it is no wonder that these inside paintings frequently impress people with their elegance.
Ten years ago, inside painting was included on the national intangible cultural heritage list. This traditional art form has developed even more through the efforts of inheritors of the craft in Beijing, Hebei, Shandong, and Guangdong. No longer are inside paintings seen in snuff bottles alone. They also appear in teapots, tea caddies, pen holders, screens, octagon vases, scent bottles, ashtrays and crystal balls. Skilled craftsmen from various regions of China, create all kinds of paintings and calligraphy on these small objects. Inside painting has become a bright pearl in the history of Chinese arts and crafts.
The Beijing School Masters of Inside Painting
The origin of inside-painted snuff bottles remains a mystery. Stories have it that a young Chinese painter from the south of the Five Ridges named Gan Juwen invented this artform.
Of course, there is also another story. In the later years of the Qianlong period (reign: 1736–1795) of the Qing Dynasty, there was a poor scholar in Beijing who stayed at an old temple. He lived in poverty but was addicted to snuff. Looking to quell his cravings, he turned to a used snuff bottle, scraping its inner wall. As a result, some lines were left on the inside wall. Later, when a temple monk found the bottle, he was inspired by the lines and began to paint inside the bottle with a curved bamboo stick in his spare time. In so doing, the monk created the first inside-painted snuff bottle.
The story of the monk made the craft inexorably linked with Beijing. In 1696, Emperor Kangxi (reign: 1662–1723), himself a snuff enthusiast, established the first glass factory in China to produce snuff bottles, which were given as gifts to his ministers and foreign ambassadors. During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, amber, coral, agate, crystal and bamboo root were used in addition to glass and porcelain to make snuff bottles. At the end of the Qianlong period, inside painting helped promote snuff bottle production to a level so high that it was known worldwide as an incredible and divine art. Between the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China period (around 1890 to 1945), the production of inside painted-snuff bottles reached its peak in Beijing. At that time, there appeared a group of inside painting masters appeared, the most prominent being Zhou Leyuan, Ding Erzhong (1868–1935), Ma Shaoxuan and Ye Zhongsan (1875–1945). The works of these folk artisans represented the charm of Beijing-school inside painting in its early development.
Of its numerous masters, Ye Zhongsan was recognised as the “founder” of the Beijing school. His paintings are characterised by simple design, bright colours and a distinctive style that caters to both popular and high art tastes. Ye’s paintings include landscapes, insects, fish and figures. He was particularly good at depicting figures from Chinese literary classics and historical stories. He often based his paintings on characters from such Chinese classics as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, A Dream of Red Mansions, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio and The Investiture of the Gods. All the figures in Ye’s paintings, regardless of gender or age, are depicted to have a short, round face and a crescentshaped mouth to show their radiance. In order to not appear too dull, clothes are usually painted in heavy or light colours to bring out their hue. When depicting leaves and grass, Ye often dipped his blunt-tipped willow pen into a very bright green paint, taking great care to paint the leaves or grass as circular at the edge and hollow in the centre, gradually forming his own distinctive style. Ye’s descendants Ye Xiaofeng and Ye Bengqi inherited the family profession, laying a foundation for the formation and development of the inside painting schools of Beijing and Hebei.
The master Zhou Leyuan devoted much of his time and energy to depicting the mountains and rivers in the regions south of the Yangtze River. A three-part composition is frequently basis of Zhou’s paintings: riverbanks lined with willows in the foreground, the river‘s waters at the centre and distant mountains making up the painting’s background. When in the foreground, Zhou’s mountains and rocks were painted to highlight their shades and texture, a technique commonly seen in traditional Chinese landscape paintings.
Despite occasionally being rather colourful, Zhou’s paintings usually focused on the use of a single colour. Among the Palace Museum’s collection are many of Zhou’s snuff bottles. One particular round bottle is no taller than 4.1 centimetres (cm), with a mere 2.3 cm maximum diameter. Its entire interior is composed of two scenes, “The Return of a Fisherman” and “A House by the Riverbank,” both meticulously printed on the inside wall of that small bottle.
Among the masters of inside painting, the distinctive style of Ma Shaoxuan is easily recognisable. Ma’s paintings cover
a wide range of subjects, with a focus on works of Chinese calligraphy, antiques and figures. Ma’s depiction of paper paintings and calligraphy in particular are second to none among the masters of inside painting. He frequently painted regular script calligraphy works by famous calligraphers Wang Xizhi (AD 303–361) and Ouyang Xun (AD 557–641), some of which used poetic lines in the handwriting style of Wang and Ouyang, while others are directly quoted from Wang’s Lanting xu (“preface to the poems collected from the Orchid Pavilion”) and Jiuchenggong liquanming (“tablet inscription of the Sweet Spring in Jiucheng Palace”) by Ouyang.
Despite possessing their own and distinctive individual styles, the masters of the Beijing school have much in common. Most interior painting artists of the Beijing school used bamboo or willow pens until the 1960s, which determined the characteristics of their paintings. Paintings created with bamboo pens show stiff lines and round concluding strokes, while brush paintings take on heavier colours and look more elegant. Paintings of the Beijing school are in striking contrast with those of the Shandong school, whih feature delicate strokes and bright colours from soft-hair brushes.
The Distinctive Hebei School Style
Hengshui, Hebei, home to the Hebei school of inside painting was named “Home of Chinese inside painting” by the Ministry of Culture. Wang Xisan, founder of the Hebei school, began learning inside painting from Ye Xiaofeng and Ye Bengqi as an apprentice of the Ye family in 1958.
While inheriting the simple and elegant style fo Ye, Wang also used the traditional delicate and smooth delicate techniques of Shandong school painters. Texture-highlighting, brushing, dotting, polishing, sketching, rising and other techniques in traditional Chinese painting also find their way into Wang’s painting. These techniques are given fullest play by Wang as he depicts different objects— the textures of rocks and mountains are shown through light ink strokes, while displaying progressive shades and dotting clothes with paint.
In 1980, a Canadian collector asked Wang Xisan to create a portrait of Jesus for him. After Wang finished the work using traditional Chinese painting techniques, he found himself unsatisfied with the result. A novel idea then occurred to him to make another attempt using oil paints, but to his dismay the oils did not hold well to the inside wall and his brush was not particularly suited to the task either. After over a year of repeated experiments, Wang finally mastered the techniques of inside oil painting in 1981, breaking the tradition of using only ink to complete inside paintings and bringing the discipline to a higher level in design, form and spirit. What Wang accomplished has been called an innovation in “combining Chinese and Western techniques.”
Wang’s contribution to inside painting lies not only in promoting the art to an unprecedented level, but in his founding of the Hebei school. The Hebei school has formed a distinctive style in terms of its meticulous painting techniques and exquisite design, characterised by its profound meaning, rhythmic vitality, delicate composition and rich and elegant colours, as well as the combination of painting and writing.
The style of a painting is determined by the tool. Bamboo and willow pens with a hook-shaped tip were primarily used by the Ye masters. The Bamboo pens were often used to depict rocks and lines, while willow pens were for highlighting shades and colouring. In 1958, Xue Jingwan, a painter of the Shandong school, improved the traditional bamboo pen by tying a small brush to the tip to enhance its final effect. But the tip of the bamboo pen was too fine to hold the brush for long, the brush often fell off or broke during painting. After noticing cutting wire, Wang Xisan was inspired and invented a brush with a metal handle. The handle could bent and turned out to be more flexible, solid and durable than those previously used by Shandong artists. This metalhandled brush became a tool typical of Hebei school painters.
Nowadays, in spite of using the same tool for painting, both old artists and young painters alike within the Hebei school are active in breaking the limitations of inside painting, showing
their distinctive styles and executing their own artistic concepts. It is a field in which a galaxy of talents has appeared . Wang Guanyu is known for a bold and unrestrained style, creating magnificent and poetic works such as Sanquan tu— qiwang (“three dogs—expectation”), Baijun tu (“one hundred fine horses”) and Shaolu tu (“deer hunting”). Dong Xue is known for his solid painting and light colours, whose representative works include Deng Xiaoping Xiaoxiang (“portrait of Deng Xiaoping”) and Sida mingdan xiaoxiang (“portrait of four famous Peking Opera performers”), immaculately composed and full of texture. Zhang Rucai holds his own in figure paintings. His portraits of ladies have smooth, pleasing lines, depicting quiet and elegant women. The figures in his representative painting Ting Qin (“listening to the zither playing”) are delicately and vividly depicted. The art of inside painting is marvellously displayed within a small snuff bottle.
The Development and Continuance of the Tianjin School
After inside painting first appeared in Beijing, it was not long before it also came to Tianjin. As traditional Chinese painting developed in Tianjin as a school, inside painting also formed its own distinctive style there. Tianjinstyle Chinese paintings highlight the cultural character of modern and contemporary Tianjin while striving to reproduce the essence of traditional art and culture. Social life and artistic taste are both important. In this regard, Tianjin’s inside paintings are no different, yet they also show regional characteristics, absorbing useful local elements while appealing to both refined and popular taste.
Wang Xinnian, a master of arts and crafts, has engaged in inside painting for more than 30 years. He is an inheritor of the intangible cultural heritage that is inside painting. Wang’s bottle paintings are characterised by their elaborate colouring, exquisite design, and elegant style. He combines traditional Chinese painting techniques with more modern oil painting, culminating in a style derived from various kinds of paintings. Wang excels in depicting animals. In recent years, Wang has been actively participating in all kinds of activities popularising snuff bottle painting, explaining theories and demonstrating the techniques used in different forms of painting.
To carry the extraordinary art of inside painting forward, Hebei school master Wang Xisan, with the help of his son Wang Yousan, established the “Xisan Industrial Art Secondary Vocational School” and the “Exhibition Centre of Chinese Inside Painting,” while contributing to the artistic standards and development of the Hebei school of inside painting. Similar efforts are also being made in Beijing.
Conventionally, inside painting is known as an art that features delicateness, meticulousness, exquisiteness and popular styles. But new concepts have been appearing. A master in the field named Liu Yizi first put forward the idea of “new inside painting” in a Hebei Inside Painting Training Class organised in 1994, emphasising that the traditional art should be interpreted from a modern artistic perspective, changing the present direct copying and vulgar attitude toward art creation through a free and creative spirit.
Over 20 years later, the concept of new inside painting has seen wide acceptance. Painters have also been quietly changing ideas and techniques. By combining Chinese and Western styles and integrating ancient and modern elements in their art, artists have introduced abstraction, transformation, exaggeration, and other techniques to their works, bringing new vitality to the form. This vitality is blooming in inside paintings across China.
Liu Shouben, a master of the Beijing School of painting insides of snuff bottles
Snuff bottles with various paintings designs