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Interior Painting in Snuff Bottles

An Introduction to Interior Painting in Snuff Bottles

Snuff bottles are not native to China but were reportedly introduced from the West by Fr.Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit father who worked in Beijing in the early 17th century. But the art of interior painting in snuff bottles was born and developed in China.  

The Chinese people began to take snuff at Ming Dynasty, started from Guangdong area at the beginning. At that time snuff bottles were seldom imported. From Kangxi Period, the Western missionaries came to China with big amount of snuff and glass bottles. It gradually became a fashion of taking snuff. Portugal, then the U.K., French and other countries began to present snuff and glass snuff bottles to China. The Emperor Qianlong gave his senior officials snuffs as awards. Taking snuff gradually became a social fashion then.

The origin
A popular story tells how the art originated. In the Qing Dynasty, an official who addicted to snuff stopped on his way at a small temple for a rest. When he took out his crystal snuff bottle to take a sniff, he found it was already empty. He then scraped off a little of the powder that had stuck on the interior wall of the bottle by means of a slender bamboo stick, thus leaving lines on the inside, visible through the transparent wall. A young monk saw him at this and hit upon the idea of making pictures inside the bottle. Thus a new art was born.  

Inside painting
The "painting brush" of the snuff bottle artist today is not very different from what the official in the story used at the beginning. It is a slender bamboo stick, not much thicker but much longer than a match, with the tip shaped like a fine pointed hook. Dipped in colored ink and thrust inside the bottle, the hooked tip is employed to paint on the interior surfaces of the walls, following the will of the painter.  

The quality of the painting and calligraphy to be seen on many of these bottles challenges belief. It has to be remembered that these delightful scenes are, first of all, only an inch or two high and are painted whilst manipulating the brush through the neck of the bottle maybe only a quarter inch across and also painted in reverse. One can imagine that the degree of training and practice required, not to mention patience, must quite difficult.

It has been said that a skilled artist may complete a simple bottle in a week whilst something special may take a month or more and that the best craftsmen will produce only a few bottles in a year.Liu Shouben, a celebrated contemporary master in this field, succeeded in painting all the 108 heroes and heroines of the classical novel Water Margin, each with his or her characteristic expression, all inside one single bottle!

Today there are three main studios producing high quality inside painted snuff bottles. These are the "Xisan Art Academy of Inside Painting" located in the city of Hengshui, Hebei province, with "Wang Xisan" as the master artist, the Beijing Studio in Beijing with "Liu Shouben" as the master artist and the Shandong school located in Boshan with "Li Kechang" as the master artist.

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