Zhou Leyuan (whose home-town was Shangyin, in Jiejiang province according to one of his seals) is the single most important artist in the entire field of inside-painted snuff bottles. Artistically he has peers, none who surpassed him but a few who attained his lofty standards of technique and art (Yiru jushi, Gan Xuanwen, Chen Xuan among the artists who preceded him, and Ma Shaoxuan – at his best – Ding Erzhong, early Ye Zhongsan, Ziyizi among those he inspired). What makes him so important is his crucial position in the history of the art and the immense influence he exerted over all the artists who followed him, right up to the 1960s.
Although painting on the inside of a snuff bottle was first conceived of in the dying years of the eighteenth century, along with so much other innovation in the snuff-bottle field, after the Lingnan School of Gan Xuanwen in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, the art devolved into commercial craft which, by the third quarter of the century, resulted in a Beijing school producing badly painted, cheap bottles with no artistic merit. Zhou seems to have been trained in this school, perhaps in the 1870s, but by the 1880s was already in the process of bringing artistic dignity back to the art form. Between then and his death, or last work, in the Spring of 1893 he single-handedly lifted the art back to its lofty origins and inspired a large school of followers in Beijing. He may have been a commercial painter, selling his art and taking commissions throughout the height of his career, but he acted like an artist. He never painted a hasty or sloppy work, never repeated a composition, and maintained the highest standards of artistic integrity. The same cannot be said for all of his followers, but several of them rose to the occasion, including the scholar-painter-calligrapher, bamboo- and seal-carver Ding Erzhong. Many others, who were more commercially inclined and tended towards decorativeness in their art, were still capable of producing masterpieces when they chose to do so (Ye Zhongsan in his early years, Ma Shaoxuan, Meng Zishou, and others). What Zhou had was a complete command of the medium and aesthetic credibility – the two pillars of great art. One only has to look at his works that remain in reasonably good condition to grasp this. Zhou was a Master, with a capital ‘M’.
For consistent mastery and integrity he was matched only by Ding Erzhong in the school he inspired, although we should perhaps include Ziyizi.
What is also important, from the point of view of the collector and student of the subject, is that he left a large body of works. He obviously painted full-time from the late 1870s until he ceased to paint in the spring of 1893. In some years he was more prolific than in others and particularly between 1882 and 1885 he didn’t date so many works so we are left to guess at what was done in those years, but his output was prolific during the height of his career from the early 1880s to 1893. As a commercial painter, however, his output would have matched the demand for his works, and it is obvious from the dated works that he hit the height of his fame between about 1885 and 1893 – with demand steadily increasing throughout that period.
The connoisseurship of inside-painted snuff bottles in terms of differentiating between the artistic and the decorative is greatly aided by one simple exercise: remove the bottle. If we take the painting away from its ‘ship in a bottle’ novelty so that the painting stands apart from the artist’s skill in being able to paint it backwards on the inside of a tiny bottle, and it still looks good as art, then we are probably dealing with a master. If this is consistently true across a body of works, then we certainly are. In the case of Zhou Leyuan, it is true of every single bottle he produced after mastering the art.
We have blown up a selection of images to treat them as Chinese paintings to demonstrate the mastery of Zhou Leyuan.
Judge for yourselves: to me, as a once and future collector – well actually a present collector, for I have always kept a few snuff bottles tucked away – Zhou Leyuan represents the pinnacle of the art form. For that reason I have always collected his works. The first collection was sold to the Blochs in the 1980s, the second I have formed since with a piratical lust for being able to acquire the best for peanuts in what I felt was an uncomprehending marketplace. Zhou represents, to me, the bee’s-knees of inside painting and I have always followed my instincts, for which I am now grateful.
Brief captions to each illustration give the dates, or assumed dates of each painting. Before long we will add a bibliography listing all the abbreviations we have used to save time with our research systems, but in the meantime if you need to know what an abbreviation means, you are welcome to contact us. The major salerooms, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, for instance, and their locations are listed as: CL – Christie’s London; SNY – Sotheby’s New York , SHK – Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, etc. Some images are listed under the collector who owned them at the time of photography, and some have Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd numbers (i.e. 21.5.158). Others are taken from our copious files of old-fashioned photographs and catalogue illustrations.