A lovely orange-yellow glass Chinese snuff bottle, reverse painted with birds and flowers. 19th century, Qing Dynasty.
One of the most widely collected Chinese antiques for sale; these exquisite miniatures, which measure between one-and-a-half and three inches high, not only illustrate the technical virtuosity of Qing dynasty craftsmen, but also provide a window on life and culture in late imperial China.
Condition: Fine. No chips or cracks.
Provenance: Ex. Private collection, Hampshire, UK.
It's not clear how snuff (powdered tobacco) first made it to China in the early to mid-1600s. It may have arrived via traders from Portugal or Russia, or it could have been brought by invading Manchus. What we do know is that once the members of Imperial Court caught a whiff, they were hooked. While the Chinese found smoking tobacco distasteful, snuff, which mixed tobacco with herbs and spices, was believed to have medicinal properties. It was considered a cure for migraines, and as one high-ranking court scholar wrote, it was "said to be able to improve one's sight, especially to exorcise epidemic diseases." Because snuff was inhaled through the nose, it often caused one to sneeze, which was considered a means of purging illnesses and impurities.
The Imperial Court, however, did not have access to substantial quantities of snuff until Jesuit missionaries, hoping to gain access to the "Forbidden Kingdom," presented Kangxi, the second emperor of the Qing Dynasty, with an elaborate snuff box in 1684. While the emperor was pleased by this gift, he realized that, thanks to China's humid climate, snuff would cake in a box, which could not be sealed very tightly. He found that traditional Chinese medicine bottles made better containers. So Emperor Kangxi had beautiful snuff bottles made for himself and his whole family.
Soon, delicately handcrafted and ornate snuff bottles were a wildly popular symbol of status in the imperial court—tobacco, imported from the New World, was prohibitively expensive for most commoners. For the upper crust of Chinese society, a snuff bottle was the equivalent of a Rolex watch. A man talking to his colleagues would pull out his bottle and offer snuff to share so that the others could admire the beauty of his bottle. For this reason, the bottles were also used in bribes.
Whilst snuff bottles were first produced for the Emperor and his court, they were eventually produced in much greater quantities for the public who enjoyed their functionality as well as their display as symbols of status.
These exquisite miniatures, which measure between one-and-a-half and three inches high, not only illustrate the technical virtuosity of Qing dynasty craftsmen, but also provide a window on life and culture in late imperial China. For example, early 18th-century imperial glass and painted enamel bottles show the influence of the Jesuits at court, and the imperial fascination with Western technical advances. Carved examples in different mediums such as jade and glass illustrate the relationships between craftsmen working at the imperial workshops, and the favoured motifs across materials. Later 19th-century versions reveal how earlier imperial tastes became popular with the general public, while confirming the continuing status of snuff use in Qing society.
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