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Ding Erzhong

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Master in a Bottle
Homage to Zhou Leyuan
Ding Erzhong Entries from
Treasury IV

Zhou Leyuan

Zhou Leyuan Essay
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Selected paintings laid
out as an album

Ye Zhongsan and Family

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Ding Erzhong homage to Zhou Leyuan

Among Ding Erzhong’s masterly snuff-bottle are two which pose some intriguing questions about his relationship with Zhou Leyuan.  Zhou was certainly his original inspiration for taking up the art-form, and may have been his mentor, possibly even his teacher in some capacity. Ding’s career appears to have begun just as Zhou’s stopped abruptly in the Spring of 1893.  Both bottles are by Ding Erzhong, but bear the spurious signature of Zhou Leyuan.

One came from Robert Kleiner recently and was acquired by Denis Low for his Sanctum of Enlightened Respect Collection (Fig.1).  In Hugh Moss Records is a note of a bottle by Ding Erzhong with a fake Zhou Leyuan signature without a photograph.  It is probably the Low bottle.  If not, it is a third example. The other (Fig.2) was in the Franz Collection until they decided that their small group of inside painted didn’t much excite either of them and they parted with all of them.  It is now in another private collection.



On at least one occasion Ding produced a bottle without an identifying inscription or signature (Fig.3 ), and he occasionally made a mistake with the cyclical dating system and wrongly dated a bottle, but these are the only two bottles we can presently identify where he has used Zhou Leyuan’s name.  Intriguingly, the two are quite different.


The Sanctum of Enlightened Respect bottle makes very little pretence at Zhou’s style.  The brushwork – or, in those days, penwork since painting was done with a bamboo sliver bent at right-angles at its tip – could be from no other hand but Ding’s, but even style and the subject, particularly the bird and tree scene, are also his.  The Franz bottle, however, follows the style of Zhou Leyuan, brilliantly imitated, and is spuriously dated to an appropriate year in Zhou’s career for the style (1886), suggesting a relatively close familiarity with his mentor’s work.  It is not only signed Zhou Leyuan, but there has even been an attempt to imitate Zhou’s calligraphic style absent from the Low bottle.  The one is a Ding Erzhong painting, with a passing nod to his mentor in the use of the signature; the other is an attempt to fool someone, possibly everyone, although one obvious exception is noted later.  On the Franz bottle, Ding achieved his purpose in the short-term.  Since it appeared in Butterfields (now owned by Bonham’s), San Francisco, 20 May 1993, lot 2804, it has been widely considered not only a genuine, but a very important bottle by Zhou Leyuan, in a lovely old crystal bottle, and with an unusual composition and colouring for Zhou Leyuan.  I sold it to the Franz Collection as Zhou Leyuan, and it was not until very recently, when looking again at it to do a description for its new owner that I realized it was by Ding. 

A great artist in any medium usually has trouble copying another artist.  He will always find it difficult to reconcile the need to copy the brushwork and style which is an intellectual exercise demanding constant attention, and the need to paint freely in order to create a masterpiece.  As a rule he will always leave clues for anyone familiar with the works of both artists. 

Since e-yaji aspires to being an educational site, among other aims, you might enjoy re-enacting the detective work involved in the correct interpretation of the Franz bottle.  The Sanctum example is too obviously by Ding Erzhong to require anything in the way of detective work.

A first exercise is to look at the writing of the cyclical date.  Then check all of Zhou Leyuan’s bottles for that year and see how he wrote it.  Then check all the bottles from Ding Erzhong which use either of the two characters of the cyclical date for 1886 - 丙戌 bingxu.  It is not possible to compare Ding’s writing of this combination as a unit, since he was not painting snuff bottles so early, beginning only in the early 1890s.  Alternatively, in 1946, when it recurs, he had long since ceased producing bottles.  What is possible, however, is to compare the writing of 丙 bing  (recurring in 1896, 1906, 1916, 1926) and of 戌 shu (1898, 1920, 1932).  Once attuned to comparing the writing of one or a group of characters, the most telling point in the date becomes obvious.  Following the cyclical date, the month is given as 七月 qiyue (seventh month).  Checking Zhou Leyuan’s output we discover that it is rare for him to use such numerical designations for the month, although not unknown. Zhou usually identified the season (spring, winter, summer,autumn) as in‘winter’s day,’ or ‘autumn month’ for instances, and sometimes modifying it (e.g. ‘mid-autumn’). Ding, on the other hand, regularly used numbered months in dating his works.  In writing the inscription on the Franz bottle, although an attempt was made to imitate Zhou’s style, Ding appears to have been insufficiently familiar with his works to have noticed that he used a different dating system.  Once alerted to this, we find in Ding’s works other examples where he has similarly run the number and the character for ‘month’ together in this same distinctive manner.  Only Ding could have written ‘seventh month’ in the style in which it appears on the bottle.

Once we begin to entertain the authorship of Ding Erzhong, several other stylistic anomalies become more obvious. 

Ding Erzhong was an accomplished seal-carver, and his seals on bottles reflect this.  The two seals here are nothing like Zhou’s seals.  The larger one set on the grassy bank on the un-inscribed side is not otherwise used by Zhou Leyuan; and reflects the sensibility of a master seal-text carver like Ding.  It is also used in a manner quite unlike Zhou Leyuan’s use of seals.  It is superimposed on elements of the painting, added as emphasis as much as for any lexical content.   Zhou Leyuan uses his seals mostly to identify himself and places them in open space where they can be easily read.  He was not in the habit of superimposing them onto the actual painting.  We know that Ding Erzhong was a prolific painter and calligrapher in the more usual media, and for him using a seal in this painterly fashion was second nature.  Zhou who painted only inside snuff bottles was unused to such a practice.

The landscape on the un-inscribed side is in the style of Zhou Leyuan, but is neither his composition nor typical colouring.  Both are typical of Ding, who favoured the use of clear, pale vermillion – used for the foliage of two trees in the main, central group.   Zhou Leyuan confined his use of this colour mainly to certain elements that demanded it (e.g. goldfish, or a cock’s comb).  He did not use it for foliage, nor so prominently.  On the other hand, it was one of Ding’s favourite colours, appearing in dozens of his works, often as foliage, clothing colour, and other details.  Indeed, it is almost a signature colour for him, used in many of his works and often as the only colour to relieve ink and pale sepia washes.   

There is also another small difference in the manner of painting the trees.  In Zhou’s early landscapes, trees other than pines consist of a broad trunk, perhaps branching just before disappearing bluntly into a mass of foliage.  Zhou tends to have his trunks and branches end more abruptly than Ding for similar trees.  Ding is more inclined, particularly with his foreground trees but also with others, to continue the branching so that we see lines reaching much further into the foliage; more of the skeleton of the tree is defined. 

Very rarely did Zhou adumbrate his clouds with pale lines (although he did on one or two occasions) he usually just left blank space or, occasionally used pale washes together with blank space, whereas here Ding has drawn the clouds on the blank space. 

Once we begin to look with a knowledgeable eye, there are plenty of clues to the real authorship of the Franz painting, but why was it painted?  In all of Ding’s output it is the only example where he seemed intent to produce a credible copy of another artist’s work.  The indifference to Zhou’s style in the Sanctum bottle suggests it may have been no more than a passing nod to his mentor, the man who apparently inspired him to take up the art, and influenced him considerably throughout his early career.  Ding owed him a lot, even though Ding may have been the loftier scholar and a rung or three above Zhou Leyuan on the social ladder.  But with the Franz bottle he was out to fool someone.  Earlier, we said that he might have been out to fool everyone, but in fact there is one obvious exception – whoever he produced the bottle for, whoever was the patron who prompted him to attempt a convincing copy of a Zhou Leyuan painting.  A contender for the role is identified in the dedication - if we believe that an inscription pretending to be from another’s hand and at another time is going to correctly identify the recipient.  He is 仲公先生 Zhonggong xiansheng (Mr. Zhonggong), which doesn’t allow us to further identify him.  We can practically rule out a third, unidentified party ordering it so he could present the fake bottle to a genuine Mr. Zhonggong, since the date would give the game away.  Ding could not date it accurately, for Zhou Leyuan was no longer painting by the time Ding had the skills to produce this bottle, so presumably Mr. Zhonggong asked him to fake the bottle and date it spuriously, unless Zhonggong was a friend of Ding’s and it was Ding’s idea to make it for him to impress him with his capacity to produce a credible Zhou Leyuan.  Whatever prompted it, it was a one-off affair. 

Both the Zhou-signed bottles are masterpieces of Ding’s output from the height of his career and carry with them, albeit more subtly in one than the other, the signature of the real artist in subject matter, composition, calligraphic-style, and seal-style, regardless of what name he used and why. It is intriguing to see two great masters of the art-form linked in this unusual manner.  There are dozens of unconvincing fakes of Zhou’s work by lesser artists, nearly all of whom after the 1880s were inspired by his works and their growing fame, but those bottles are in a different class entirely – mere commercial opportunism.  There are even some half-way convincing copies by the Ye family, although they fall down on the calligraphic content.   Here one great master of the art is paying homage, for whatever reasons, to another.  As such these are hardly ‘fakes’ in the same sense as all the attempts by lesser artists to cash in on Zhou’s growing fame; they are an intriguing insight into the relationship between two of the leading Beijing inside-painted artists.

One more possibility suggests itself, and is even more intriguing. Eventually, with the Franz bottle, there are so many hidden clues as to its true authorship that it is possible that Ding was leaving a trail, expecting to be revealed as the real artist eventually.   If so, it served two purposes: in the shorter term, it demonstrated his skills at imitating the source of his inspiration in the art but in the longer term it would be revealed as a work from his own hand.  As an artist in several media, but crucially in painting, calligraphy and seal-text carving, painting, calligraphy and fan-frame carving, he would have automatically expected future investigation into his art.


Hugh Moss | Contact Us