Snuff Bottles with Pictures Inside

 Yan Gang

The art of decorating snuff bottles from the inside originated in Beijing. The story goes that in the Qing Dynasty during the reign of Dao Guang (1821-1850),an impoverished scholar was addicted to snuff. To relieve his cravingfor the powdered tobacco, he scraped his snuff bottle from the inside with abamboo slip. Gradually the marks left on the inner wall of the bottle made apicture, catching the fancy of folk artists. The art of drawing pictures inside snuff bottles was thus created and popularized. In the beginning the pictures were simple and roughly drawn. But by the reign of Guang Xu (1875-1908),the art had been perfected: Artists made delicate drawings with bamboo slips or calligraphy brushes on the bottles' polished inner walls.

Today, snuff-boffle pictures fall into three different categories-the Jing(Beijing), Ji (Hebei) and Lu (Shandong). Wang Xisan's art is representative of the Ji school. In 1957 Wang studied under the famous artists Ye Xiaofeng and Ye Xiaosan. He further developed the art by absorbing the good points of different schools and using the traditional tools, bamboo and wood slips,as well as writing brushes. Finally he created a style of his own. Traditionally,snuff-bottle themes were confined to characters from folktales or flowers and grasses. Wang Xisan made a breakthrough by portraying a kitten playing with a butterfly on its tail, a picture full of wit and humour. Wang Xisan was also the first to use calligraphy on snuff bottle pictures. In recent years his bottle drawings, using techniques borrowed from Western oil painting,have been praised in China and abroad. His picture Two Monkeys was awarded a prize for excellence by the 12th International Snuff Bottle Artists' Associa-tion in 1980. Pu Yi and Wan Rong was appraised as the best work by the 13th Intemational Snuff Bottle Artists' Assoaation and in 1985 American Presidents won recognition as a unique piece of Chinese art.

A Hundred Children, another masterpiece by Wang Xisan was painted on a bottle 8cm high and 7cm in diameter, which was modeled on a crystal bottle from the Qing Dynasty unearthed in Nanpi County, Hebei Province. By using a combination of Chinese ink styles and western oil, Wang vividly portrayed one hundred innocent and lively children, some clustered under a tree, others studying a seismograph or playing chess, and yet others discussing poems and painting or climbing trees. This snuff bottle has been listed as one of the state's best works of art.

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