July 15, 2010
October 31, 2010
Snuff bottles are among the most sumptuous of Chinese decorative arts. Made in a wide variety of materials, including precious metals and semi-precious stones, the palm-size vessels dazzle with intricate painting, carving, enameling and other techniques. In October, the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society holds its annual convention in Honolulu, and to commemorate the event, the Academy presents an exhibition of nearly 200 jewel-like bottles.
The story of the snuff bottle begins in the Americas, the source of tobacco. Europeans were first exposed to the plant during Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage. Among the uses of tobacco that Columbus and his crew saw was the insufflation of powdered tobacco, or “snuff,” through the nose. In the 16th and 17th centuries—Europe’s Age of Exploration—extensive maritime routes were established between Europe and Asia first by the Portuguese and Spanish, followed by the British and Dutch. This laid the foundations for a worldwide trade of spices from Southeast Asia, porcelains from China and Japan, and a wealth of other goods that would result in European colonization throughout Asia, the impact of which was felt well into the 20th century.
Among the commodities that Europeans brought to Asia was snuff, which gained a foothold quickly due to the many medicinal qualities attributed to it. Although Europeans used snuff boxes for storage, the small ceramic medicine jarlets common in China at the time probably were adapted for snuff storage instead, and it is likely that these jarlets were the predecessors of the snuff bottles common in the 18th and 19th centuries. Over time, the jarlet form was modified, becoming smaller with thinner walls and a narrower mouth, protected by a stopper with an attached ivory spatula, and accessories like snuff saucers developed. Although snuff probably entered into China before the collapse of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the fate of snuff was intimately connected with the rise and fall of the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644-1911), growing in popularity as this dynasty reached its zenith in the 18th century, and declining with the fall of the dynasty in the early 20th century. Yet snuff bottles, outlasting their original purpose, remain one of China’s most popular souvenirs.
In many cases the materials used to make snuff bottles reflect the political expansion of China during the Qing dynasty and the securing of trade routes. For example, Central Asian nephrite was a popular material for snuff bottles (as for other decorative arts), and the Qianlong Emperor’s (r. 1736-1795) military campaigns to secure control of nephrite-rich areas in Xinjiang initiated a golden age for bottles made from the finest white stone. Similarly, the snuff bottles made of dark green jadeite from Myanmar are evidence of the development of trade between China and the south. Snuff bottles in porcelain, agate, rock crystal, glass, lacquer, wood, and ivory are also represented, showing the remarkable range of rare, sometimes exotic, materials Chinese artists used.
The Academy extends special thanks to Mr. Y. F. Yang who made his collection available for the exhibition. His superb snuff bottles from the 18th and 19th centuries on display include exceptionally rare early inside painted bottles. In addition, the Academy is fortunate to have received an important collection of snuff bottles from Joanna Lau Sullivan, some of which are in this exhibition, while others can be seen in the Maurice J. Sullivan Gallery of Chinese Art (Gallery 16).—Shawn Eichman, Curator of Asian Art