Excerpt from the Digital Journal of Advanced Appraisal Practice: Appraising Chinese Glass: A Guide to Objects & Connoisseurship

Fellow appraiser, Asian art specialist and ISA instructor Susan Leahey, MA, ISA AM contributed an interesting and excellent article on appraising Chinese glass. The article was included in the Spring edition of the Digital Journal of Advanced Appraisal Practice. I have included several sections in block quotes below from Susan's paper touching on her introduction, background on Peking glass, reverse painted glass and snuff bottles.

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From Susan Lahey's article, Appraising Chinese Glass:  A Guide to Objects & Connoisseurship

The three traditional areas of collecting in Chinese art are porcelain, jade and painting.  Decorative arts such as glass, lacquer and cloisonné have, generally speaking, been overlooked and often underrated.  Chinese glass in particular has suffered from this lack of attention, and more scholarly work needs to be done to increase our understanding and appreciation of its beauty and potential value.  One reason for this is the dearth of archaeological evidence, i.e. actual extant early Chinese glass objects.  The other reason is the cultural reverence of jade to the detriment of the perception of glass works of art.  The focus of this article is on the connoisseurship of Chinese glass and the values which certain types of objects are achieving in the current market.
Real efforts at glassmaking by the Chinese began in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). This is the type of glass known as “Peking Glass,” as it was initially made in the capital of Peking [known as Beijing today]. The fourth Qing Emperor, Kangxi (1654-1722 AD), a contemporary of France’s King Louis XIV, was responsible for encouraging new ties with the West, specifically French Jesuit missionaries. Kangxi was open-minded about importing scientific knowledge in the areas such as astronomy, cartography and medicine, as well as the technology of glassmaking. The establishment of the glassworks workshop in 1696 within the walls of the Forbidden City in Beijing, marked an advancement in artistic ambitions in this area. While the Chinese were masters of bronzes, ceramics and jade artistry, glass had been long neglected. With the arrival of the Germany missionary Kilian Stumpf (1655-1720) in Beijing who had a strong knowledge of kiln construction and method of creating a variety of colors, there was a dramatic improvement in the quality and quantity of glass production. During the Qing dynasty, gold was also introduced in both porcelain glazes and glass making, with great results.
The pinnacle of Chinese glassmaking took place in the 18th century during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-1796). Below is an example of the cameo-carving technique, with ruby glass encasing the inner frosty white glass vase. A master craftsman would have carved through the ruby overlay to expose the white ground to compose the battle scene- hence the name of this object known as ‘The Warrior Vase.’
This vase, which is part of the Corning Museum of Glass collection, is an example of technical virtuosity because of its unusually large size and elaborate decoration. It is ‘cameo glass’ at its finest. The neck and body serve as a canvas to depict a famous battle scene in Chinese history. The inner white body can be described as ‘snowflake glass’ (sometimes also referred to as ‘frosted’ glass). Notice the very high depth of the relief carving. Depth of carving is a factor in terms of quality and value, just as it is with other Chinese decorative objects, such as those made from lacquer.

Reverse Glass Painting:

In Chinese art, reverse glass painting uniquely combines the genres of glass making, and the tradition of meirenhua (paintings of beauties). Unlike Peking glass made at the capital in the northern part of China, this art form was predominantly painted in the southern area of China, particularly where the foreign business lived and worked, in Guangzhou. The colors and style of export reverse glass portraits appealed very much to the European taste and fascination with Chinoiserie in the 18th and 19th centuries. This technique is described as: “Painting a design on the back side (often the interior) of a glass vessel. The design is viewed through the glass. Because of this, the pigments must be applied in the reverse of normal order, beginning with the highlights and ending with the background.”

The history of reverse glass painting at the Imperial Chinese court is an extremely interesting one, and it involves another Jesuit priest, the Italian painter Guiseppe Castiglione (1688-1766). He was frequently commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor and whose works are included in the Imperial Palace Collection. It is believed that Castiglione painted one of Qianlong’s concubines in the technique of reverse glass painting. In fact, most reverse glass paintings typically feature a portrait, often of a woman, and are regarded as belonging to the genre of export art. However, in more recent years, export art has begun to be re-evaluated by the academic attention of such scholars as James Cahill. Unfortunately, reverse glass painting has suffered from past opinions of it being “lesser” in quality and value because it is later in date. Astutely noted in the article on the Chiswick Auctions website: “Whilst primarily an export art, its Imperial patronage, technical sophistication and Chinese aesthetics demand that it receives closer academic attention within the canon of Chinese painting art.”
Snuff Bottles:

Glass was a prolific medium used in the creation of snuff bottles. The timing of the introduction of snuff (powdered tobacco) to China by Portuguese Jesuits in the late 16th century, worked out very well with the establishment of the glass workshop in the 17th century. Due to the humid weather in China, a container with a stopper/seal rather than the European snuff box was needed in order to keep the powder dry. Miniature glass bottles with a stopper were the ideal solution. Snuff was initially only used amongst members of the Imperial family and household, and the bottles were produced in the Imperial workshop for them specifically in mind. Glass bottles proved to be a light-weight, portable luxury good also convenient for gift-giving. As the popularity of snuff spread over the next two centuries, so too did the production of snuff bottles outside of the Imperial workshop in a myriad of materials.

There are several types of glass snuff bottles, including monochrome, painted (outside or inside), cameo or overlay type, mottled, and imitations of other stones. The technique of carving overlay glass (as exemplified in the ‘Warrior Vase’) was commonly used in snuff bottles of the 18th and 19th century. Glass snuff bottles produced during the Qing dynasty often imitated semi-precious stones such as realgar, aventurine, and jade.
Source: The Digital Journal of Advanced Appraisal Practice

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