Ma Shaoxuan (1867-1939) was one of the most technically accomplished artists of the Beijing school of painting, which coalesced into the most important school for the art under Zhou Leyuan and included other leading artists such as Ding Erzhong, Ye Zhongsan, and Ziyizi. Ma's famous monochromatic portrait bottles of leading Qing officials and personalities were highly sought after among the influential minority of his day and continue to be among the most coveted of all inside-painted bottles. Executed predominantly in black ink, with the use of vermilion for seals, each portrait is a technically impeccable, photographic likeness of the sitter. Ma's extraordinary 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.
Tan Xinpei (1847-1917) was a celebrated Beijing Opera star, one of the most famous of his day (see E. Curtis, Reflected Glory in a Bottle. Chinese Snuff Bottle Portraits, pp. 81-85, and V. Mead, 'A Most Perfect Archer', JICSBS, June 1977, pp. 19-10, 25). Alongside his monochromatic portraits he also painted a series of more colourful portraits of the actor Tan Xinpei in two different roles. His most popular portrait of Tan Xinpei shows him in the role of Huang Zhong (see Moss, Graham, Tsang, The Art of the Chinese Snuff Bottle. The J & J Collection, Vol. II, no. 423), he also depicted the opera star in the role of Qin Qiong. See one illustrated by R. Kleiner, Chinese Snuff Bottles from the Collection of Mary and George Bloch, no. 299, which is a mirror image of the figure on this bottle. A third example is illustrated by H. Hamilton, Oriental Snuff Bottles, p. 85, G4.
The inscription is an excerpt from 'A Preface to a Collection of Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion' (more commonly known as the 'Lanting preface'), an essay by Wang Xizhi (c. 307-365) about a literary gathering held on the third day of the third month in the ninth year of the Yonghe era (352) at the Orchid pavilion in Shanyin (Shaoxing in Zhejiang province).
It may be translated as:
On this day the sky is clear, the air fresh and the fine breeze most pleasant. Looking up we could behold the vastness of the universe. Bending down [our heads] we could observe the abundance of different kinds of things and species. This is why when we look around at our leisure we could enjoy to the utmost through seeing and listening. Truly how delightful it is!
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, Tsang, A Treasury of Chinese Snuff Bottles, Vol. 4, Inside Painted, nos. 606 and 610). On the present bottle, Ma has used white to highlight the cuffs, beard and plume of the actor's hat.
Ma's genius lay in his ability to capture in his miniature portraits a perfect reproduction of the photographs from which he worked, but because they were painted by hand, he brought 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 represents his finest work from the early 1900s onwards.