Although unsigned, there is no doubt that the artist of this superb portrait on one of the more imposing crystal bottles of the genre is Ma Shaoxuan: it carries his signature in style, technique and extraordinary sensitivity.
Ma Shaoxuan (1867-1939) was one of the most technically accomplished artists of the Beijing school of snuff-bottle painting, which was founded by Zhou Leyuan and included other leading artists, such as Ding Erzhong, Ye Zhongsan and Ziyizi (referenced in the note to lot 210). Ma's famous monochromatic portrait bottles of leading Qing officials and personalities were prized by the influential minority of his day and continue to be among the most coveted of all inside-painted bottles. Executed only in black ink, using vermilion solely for seals, each portrait is a technically impeccable, photographic likeness of the sitter. Ma's renown led to his being commissioned in 1911 to paint two portraits of the young Xuantong emperor. Although the Qing dynasty was on the verge of collapse and political turmoil marked most of this period, Ma's contacts with high officials enhanced his reputation. He also painted portraits of a number of high officials from the late Qing dynasty and the ensuing republic, including Yuan Shikai.
The portrait is identified by E. Byrne Curtis in Reflected Glory in a Bottle, New York, 1980, pp. 63-65, as that of Zhang Qian (1853-1926), a onetime associate of Yuan Shikai. Curtis also illustrates two other portraits of Zhang in the same publication, figs. 88 and 89. Both Zhang and Yuan had embarked on their careers in the service of Wu Chanqing, who is credited with preventing full-scale Japanese intervention in Korea. Yuan and Zhang were charged with coordinating the deployment and movement of Wu's troops from Shandong to Korea. At the successful conclusion of this operation Zhang was publicly commended.
Given the increasing failures of the late Qing government, Zhang turned his back on his political career and worked on developing his native district, primarily by establishing cotton mills, eventually branching out into flour mills, shipping lines, an oil mill, a distillery, a silk filature and a machine shop.
Ultimately, Zhang resumed his official career and was appointed Minister of Agriculture within Yuan's government in 1913. As an old and trusted associate of Yuan's, he was named as one of Yuan's "Four Friends of Song Shan." It is certain that this bottle dates from this period. It is not surprising to see Zhang in full military uniform as it is recorded that Yuan was fascinated by the trappings of state and received guests flanked by similarly dressed generals. Yuan's obsession with making himself emperor eventually caused a rift between the two and Zhang resigned from his post in 1915, from then on devoting himself to industrial, educational and philanthropic endeavors.
The inscription on the reverse reads:
For the pleasure of President Shao Weng
Famous for managing finance,
Expert in leading armies;
Only Yenzi of Fen Yang,
Is barely comparable to your Excellency.
Presented by Le Dacheng and sealed Cheng.
As a rule, Ma tended not to use white paint in his portraits, preferring to leave the blank background to act as white, but he occasionally highlighted certain areas with white (see Moss, Graham and Tsang, A Treasury of Chinese Snuff Bottles, Vol. 4, Inside Painted, nos. 606 and 610). On the present bottle, white wash enhances the hat plume, buttons, medal and jacket. For a similar treatment of the uniform, see a bottle portrait of General Jiang Yanxing in the same volume, 607.
Ma's genius lay in his ability to capture in his miniature portraits the a perfect reproduction of the photographs from which he worked, but because they were painted by hand, bringing to them an added vitality missing from the more mechanical photographic process. The precision of his work in this portrait, combined with the clarity and quality of the calligraphy represent his finest work from the early 1900s onwards.