The World of Inside Painted Chinese Snuff Bottles



In November 1973 Dutch businessman Robert Grootveld travelled to the People’s Republic of China as part of a Dutch Trade Mission. During his stay he visited an arts and craft factory in Beijing. Here Grootveld first encountered a group of makers producing inside painted snuff bottles. These tiny art objects captivated him and he looked for ways to purchase a few snuff bottles. In a letter to his wife, he expressed that “It is hard to understand that Art with a capital A can come from a factory. Quite on the contrary, the handiwork that this takes place there is of such craftsmanship that it would definitely be called Art in the Netherlands.” Next, he reflected on the makers: “Also, when you pay good attention. The best [makers], usually also the oldest, sit on the best spot (usually by the window) and do the most ‘difficult’ work” (Grootveld, 1973). Grootveld was intrigued by what he saw.

The inside painted snuff bottles that he started collecting in Beijing would become the foundation of one of the largest collections of Chinese modern inside painted snuff bottles in Europe. Snuff bottles would also be the preamble to his work as a collector. In the Netherlands and across Europe he became well known as a collector of modern art, in particular of works by the Dutch painter and sculptor Henk Chabot (1894-1949).

In 1992, the Grootveld family founded the Chabot Museum in an iconic villa in the city of Rotterdam, opposite the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. The building is a prime example of the architectural style of ‘Nieuwe Bouwen’ (the functionalist Dutch arm of the International Modern style), related to Bauhaus and De Stijl. Chabot was one of the foremost representatives of expressionism in the Netherlands. Chabot worked throughout the difficult years of the 1930s and later experienced the threat of war. In spring 1934, Henk Chabot and his wife move into a dike house with studio barn on the river Rotte, just outside Rotterdam. Here, Chabot painted an endless series of figures, animals and landscapes until his death in 1949. He wanted his “painting to be really Dutch” (Chabot Museum, 2017).

Whereas Robert Grootveld, together with his wife Christine Grootveld-Parrée, became known as the collectors of Chabot, not many people outside of the snuff bottle makers and connoisseurs knew of his collection of snuff bottles. At least not until now, as the collection has been digitized and can be viewed in its entirety on a specially designed website. In late 2016, the family was asked to lend ten snuff bottles to an exhibition by the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society with Christie’s in London. Unfortunately, Robert had fallen ill and could not respond.

Some months before he passed away in 2017, his daughter Caroline Ris-Grootveld began caring for the collection, making a start with inventorying and documenting the many bottles. She spoke several times with her father about the collection, who was delighted. In the following years, she had realized a full inventory and created a website that drew new attention to the stunning Grootveld Collection of snuff bottles and their history.

What follows is a story and personal journey examining the inside painted snuff bottles in the collection, reading several books and catalogues, and speaking with a wide range of experts on inside painted snuff bottles. As a curator and art historian of contemporary art in China and Asia, I am not an expert on Chinese snuff bottles, but I have started to appreciate them and become captivated by the collection and dedication of Robert Grootveld and now his daughter Caroline in looking after the collection and opening up the possibility for us to see, experience and appreciate these inside painted snuff bottles and their makers. This essay can be seen more as a travel report from a journey into the world of inside painted snuff bottles. It is written in support of the efforts, vision and mission to draw attention to the collection and to the art and skill of inside painted Chinese snuff bottles and the makers. I hope that it will inspire others to view and appreciate these incredible artworks.

Sections of this paper are:


When Robert Grootveld first visited Beijing, the People’s Republic of China was witnessing the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which took place from 1966 to 1976. The late China scholar Roderick MacFarquar described with China scholar Michael Schoenhals, how Chairman Mao Zedong, the great helmsman and leader of China at the time, wanted to revolutionize the entire country with the Cultural Revolution (MacFarquar, 2006). The Cultural Revolution led to a complete shutdown of the education system, political infighting and factions battling for power. By the late 1960s, the political system in China had become paralyzed. Then in 1970 advances were made by American President Richard Nixon to open up diplomatic talks with China, and in February 1972, President Nixon visited China. During his visit, China and the United States signed a communiqué strengthening ties between the two nations. This communiqué set off a range of countries to send trade delegations to China, including from the Netherlands.

In November 1973, the trade delegation of the Dutch State travelled to China at the invitation of the People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China. When they visited the ‘arts and craft centre’ in Beijing and were introduced to inside painted snuff bottles, Grootveld asked about collecting a few. He was told that several bottles had already been reserved for the American trade delegation who had visited the same arts and craft centre prior. Now, he became even more convinced of the artistic value of these inside painted snuff bottles and set his mind to collecting these bottles. Grootveld became particularly intrigued by the makers of these snuff bottles. He saw the well-made inside painted snuff bottles as Art and their makers as artists. He wanted to get to know them better. In the years following his first visit to China, he started to build his collection of snuff bottles, travelling to Mainland China, Hong Kong and Singapore, where he met prominent makers, dealers, collectors and connoisseurs.

Snuff bottles started being produced in the 18th century. They were made to hold imported ground tobacco (snuff) that was used first at the court during the early Qing dynasty (1644-1912), and later spread throughout the elite. Snuff bottles became prized items, valued for their extraordinary craftsmanship and unique characteristics, using precious stones, jade, ivory, quartz, stone, minerals, animal shell, lacquer, amber, porcelain and glass. These traditional snuff bottles remain highly valued collector items until today, particularly those bottles made at the Imperial Court. By the 19th century, porcelain snuff bottles in blue and white were made in vast numbers and used by the general population (Kleiner, 1994: 10). By 1816-1820 some of the early inside painted snuff bottles on glass and rock crystal were made by Gan Xuanwen, an established artist from the Lingnan School who lived near Guangzhou, Southern China. The earliest inside painted snuff bottle is thought to have come from Yiru jushi (Moss and Sargent, 2019). Inside painted snuff bottles would become prolific from the late 1870s to the 1890s, with the start of the Beijing School of inside painted snuff bottles, founded by Zhou Leyuan, who was active from 1879 to 1893 (Kleiner, 1994: 10-11). While he also collected traditional snuff bottles, Grootveld became a fond collector of these inside painted snuff bottles that form the majority of the collection, and are the focus of this essay, devoted to the great passion and dedication for collecting and caring for these inside painted snuff bottles and giving recognition to their stories and their makers.

When Robert Grootveld collected inside painted snuff bottles, he was often helped by the Shanghai-based snuff bottle artist Su Fengyi, who was a dealer himself, as well as by the Beijing-based snuff bottle dealers Jill Guo (Guo Jian) and Li Hui. He also received advice from prominent Dutch art historian and museum director, Joseph Conrad (Coert) Ebbinge Wubben (1915-2014). Ebbinge Wubben was a Dutch art historian, who from 1945 to 1978 worked first as curator of the print room and then for several decades as director of the acclaimed Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam. He was also advisor to the Chabot Museum from the very beginning.

In 2003, thirty years after he first started collecting snuff bottles, Robert Grootveld became a member of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, which was founded in 1968 by the collector Edward Choate O’Dell, and supported by the Asia Society in New York. Later Grootveld joined the Board of Directors of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society. Through his role in the Society Grootveld would meet collectors and dealers from all over the world. After he passed in 2017, Caroline Ris-Grootveld became a member of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, representing the Grootveld Collection, giving lectures, and staying in close contact with many of its members and dealers.

More than 70% of the Grootveld Collection consists of inside painted snuff bottles which are generally seven to eight centimetres tall and five to six centimetres wide. Inside painted snuff bottles are made out of clear glass, rock-crystal, sometimes quartz and even amber. The bottles are praised for their painted interiors, which require tremendous skill from the snuff bottle makers who paint different scenes, portraits and write calligraphy on the insides of the bottles.

With traditional bottles, the materials and the skills with which the materials are crafted and carved are important for their value. In the past, what bottle you own determined your status, with the highest prized made at the Imperial Court. With inside painted snuff bottles, value is determined by the way the bottle is painted, with the masters of inside painting showing both technical skills as well as freedom and elegance in their painting of these bottles and selection of the painted scenes. Inside painted snuff bottles are painted with a lot of symbolism, containing allegorical references in the figures that are painted, as will be reflected on later in this essay. In modern and contemporary times, a range of subjects are being painted, from landscapes, to still lifes and portraits.

After the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, snuff use rapidly declined and inside painted snuff bottles were no longer produced for holding snuff, but rather were produced for collectors to collect and value for the tremendous skills with which they were painted. The majority of these bottles after 1912 are said to have been made almost certainly for sale to foreign visitors (Kleiner, 1994: 11). Inside painted snuff bottles were collected in France, Britain and Germany from the late 19th and early 20th centuries onwards. In France, historian Maurice Paléologue (1859-1944) expressed his admiration for inside painted snuff bottles in his book L’Art Chinois (Chinese Art), published in 1887, writing how it “is the most perfect, it is hard to imagine the superb artistry”, as related in a Ph.D. dissertation by snuff bottle maker and art historian Jianyong Guo at Sunderland in the UK (Guo, 2016).

The artistry of inside painted snuff bottles is still recognized today and stems from the long tradition of makers and schools from the late 19th century until today. The next section will pay attention to the various schools and periods of inside painted snuff bottles.

Schools and Periods

In 2015, the late snuff bottle collector and specialist Peter Bentley, who passed away in 2020, published an article in two parts in the Journal of The International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, which provides a good overview of inside painted snuff bottles in China. First, Bentley drew attention to the notion that “All inside painting is craft,” but then stressed that “some inside painting goes beyond just craft and becomes truly art, albeit art in miniature” (Bentley, 2015a). Bentley became interested in inside painted snuff bottles in 2004 during a visit to Beijing, more than 30 years after Robert Grootveld first collected inside painted snuff bottles. Bentley focussed his collecting on modern inside painted snuff bottles. In his article, Bentley introduced five schools of modern inside painted snuff bottles and six distinct periods in the history of inside painted snuff bottles. Bentley furthermore addressed the skill and creativity within these schools and periods, especially in the very modern period, since 2000.

The five schools of inside painted snuff bottles identified by Peter Bentley were:

  • The Ji School (冀派), the largest school by the number of makers, located in the cities of Hengshui and Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province;
  • The Jing School (京派), the oldest school, located in Beijing;
  • The Lu School (鲁派), predominantly located in Zibo city in Shandong Province;
  • The Yue School (粤派), located in Shantou city, Guangdong Province; and
  • The Qin School (秦派), the most recent school, located in Xi’an city, Shaanxi Province

(Bentley, 2015a: 18).

The six periods that Bentley distinguished are:

  • The early period (早期), 1800-1860;
  • The middle period (中期), 1880-1930;
  • The period of transition (过度期), 1930-1960;
  • The early modern period (近代早期), 1960-1980;
  • The modern period (近代), 1980-2000; and
  • The very modern period (现代), 2000 until today

(Bentley, 2015a: 18).

The periods are not definitive, as Bentley pointed out, and other experts use slightly different dates. Many seem to favour a periodization in three periods:

  • The early period, from the late Qing around 1880 until 1957;
  • The modern period, starting with the founding of the oldest school, the Jing School in 1958 and leading until the 1980s; and
  • The contemporary period, with the development of diverse types of painting and painted subjects, from the 1990s until now.

These periods and schools offered a way of dating and appreciating the development of inside painted snuff bottles. Schools were linked to the provinces in which they were based and on the training of one generation of snuff bottle makers to the next. However, not all inside painted snuff bottle makers had pupils to continue the tradition. This was particularly so during the middle period (1880-1930) (Bentley, 2015a: 20).

Bentley described the main stylistic characteristics of the Five Schools in terms of similarities and nuanced differences between the Ji School in the cities of Hengshui and Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province; the Jing School in Beijing, the capital of China; and the Qin School in Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, the city known for the Terracotta Army. The Jing school was described as “conservative”, while the Ji school was described as “more free-flowing, innovative and full of color.” Bentley noted that the Ji school was an offshoot of the Qin School, but likely the Qin School was an offshoot of the Ji School, where the Qin School is the most recent school and Bentley described that several artists from the Ji School in Shijiazhuang and Hengshui moved to Xi’an to join the Qin School (Bentley, 2015a: 22). [1] The Lu School from Zhibo city in Shandong Province focused on “rather intricate painting” and “very detailed” (Bentley, 2015a: 22). Robert Grootveld had become largely interested in collecting inside painted snuff bottles from the Ji School, which were painted in the “more free-flowing, innovative and full of color” style, according to Peter Bentley (Bentley, 2015a: 22). The Ji School is led by Wang Xisan (b. 1938), who is considered one of the great masters of inside painted snuff bottles, and will be discussed in the next section.

The Grootveld Collection is divided into three longer periods, namely the Middle School (1870-1949), the Modern School (1950-2000), and the Very Modern School (2000+). Within these periods the Grootveld Collection uses six categories related to Schools: Beijing, Ji, Ji/Qin, Jing, Lu and Qin.

The majority of the inside painted snuff bottles in the Collection, 756 out of 920 bottles, are from the Ji school in Hengshui and Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province. Of these bottles, 456 date from the Very Modern School (2000+). 268 are from the Modern School (1950-2000) and 32 are from the Middle School.

In addition, 561 out of 756, are crystal. One can guess that Grootveld collected so many crystal bottles because of their pristine character and collection value. Next, it is interesting to look at some of the makers of inside painted snuff bottles to get a better idea of the leading schools and periodization of snuff bottles and also to draw attention to the way these masters are praised for their skills. 

The Makers

One of the earliest inside painted snuff bottle makers was Yiru jushi from Beijing, who used a nickname linked to Buddhism. His identity is analysed in detail by Hugh Moss and Stuart Sargent and tentatively linked to Hongwu (1743-1811), who was a member of the Manchu elite and grandson of the former emperor Kangxi (1654-1722). Hongwu used the sobriquet Yiru jushi (Moss and Sargent, 2019). If Yiru jushi was indeed linked to Hongwu, he would have started painting bottles in the last decade of his life. Another, well known early inside painted snuff bottle maker is Gan Xuanwen (active 1810-1825) of the Lingnan School of painting in Guangdong Province, South China (Kleiner, 1994: 10). Collector and scholar of inside painted snuff bottles Hugh Moss has written extensively on the Lingnan School. Moss lists Yiru Jushi and Gan Xuanwen as the earliest inside painters (Moss, 1993). Gan Xuanwen was not China’s leading artist, Moss writes, and only one painting is known, located in the collection of the Art Gallery of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Moss, 1993: 4). However, his bottles are widely known. There are no bottles by Yiru Jushi or Gan Xuanwen in the Grootveld Collection.

The next major snuff bottle maker in the history of inside painted snuff bottles is Zhou Leyuan (active 1879-1893). There are five inside painted snuff bottles by Zhou Leyuan in the Grootveld Collection, four in glass (nos. 616, 897, 935, 1124) and one in crystal (no. 83). Zhou Leyuan was a pioneer of inside painted bottles and was particularly well known for his landscapes of the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties (Leung, 1990: 10). Zhou Leyuan is listed by Bonhams as one of the great classic landscape artists working in this miniature form. Zhou Leyuan was the teacher of Ye Zhongsan (active 1895-1930) and Ding Erzhong (1865-1935). Ye Zhongshan further taught his two sons, Ye Xiaofeng (1900-1974) and Ye Bengqi (1908-1975), who taught Wang Xisan, thus establishing a direct link between Ye Zhongshan and Wang Xisan.[2]

The late American anthropologist Schuyler Camman highlighted the inside painted snuff bottles of Ma Shaoxuan (1867-1939), who painted at the turn of the twentieth century. There are fourteen of his inside painted snuff bottles in the Grootveld Collection. His work is considered original in style and subject matter, “with a wide range of subjects: individual and group portraits, animals, birds, and insects, classical landscapes, and rebus pictures (Cammann, 1957: 305). Of particular interest are the snuff bottles painted with texts and scrolls, such as in the example of bottle 578 in the Grootveld Collection depicting a range of documents or rather cultural ephemera that are listed with the bottle, including cheque, partially burned volume of Imperial poems, a fan painting of flowers, and more. These are the so called bapo, ‘Eight Broken’ painting – a representation made by a combination of cultural ephemera that was re-discovered in the West in 1978 and subsequently researched and described in detail by Nancy Berliner, then Wu Tung curator of Chinese Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Tan, 2017).

Ma Shaoxuan was preceded by Zhou Leyuan and Zhang Baotian (active 1891-1904) (Cammann, 1957: 307). As with Zhou Leyuan, Zhang Baotian is also represented in the Grootveld Collection. Ma Shaoxuan had a contemporary, his nephew Ma Shaoxian (active ca. 1899-1939) of whom one of his earliest works is in the Grootveld Collection, bottle 392, depicting two warriors. Another bottle, bottle 1130, depicts two miniature trees (盆景) and on the reverse side, a group of warriors on horseback.

Ye Zhongsan is another maker who is well represented in the Grootveld Collection with 22 bottles, depicting painted scenes of fishes, birds, horses, court figures, and children, thus showing a wide variety of subjects. As described by Cammann, these artists used rock crystal and quartz besides glass, with the crystal bottle of Ye Zhongshan also being carved on the inside “so that a bottle with lotus flowers and leaves worked in flat relief on its surface would reveal, behind them, a glimpse of fish swimming beneath other lotus plants” (Cammann, 1957: 317). Another example is bottle no.153 in the Grootveld Collection, depicting a continuous scene of goldfish swimming in weeds. In this bottle we can see minerals in the crystal being integrated in the depiction of the bottle. Other examples include scenes of Chinese folklore depicting scenes from Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (聊齋誌異) by Qing Dynasty writer Pu Songling (1640-1715), which was popular with both Chinese literati and also became very popular with foreigners in China (Cammann, 1957: 317). Scenes painted by Ye Zhongsan include good omens, such as in the case of the 30 magpies painted in bottle no. 360 in the Grootveld Collection. Interestingly, Ye Zhongsan’s granddaughter, Ye Shuyin, is considered to be one of the first female painters of inside painted snuff bottles. She started working during the 1970s at the time of the Cultural Revolution.

A significant number of snuff bottles from the Ji School in the Grootveld Collection are by pupils of one of the most acclaimed inside painted snuff bottle makers, Wang Xisan, founder of the Ji School. Wang Xisan studied at the Beijing Institute of Arts and Crafts in 1957. His original name was Wang Ruicheng, but he adopted the name xi “learning” (習) and san (三) “three”, which were the pen names of his teachers Ye Zhongsan and Ye Benqi. Wang Xisan invented an important inside painting tool, “flexible metal shaft brushes which [are] later widely used in inside painting” (Chen, 2021b). These “’flexible metal shaft brushes’ [were] based on the western brush and the hooked bamboo pens of the Shandong school”, where before this invention in 1967 painters used bamboo pens (Chen, 2021a). Wang also pioneered the technique of using oil paint as an inside painting technique (Chen, 2021b). In 2011, Wang Xisan founded a Museum of Inside Painting in Beijing, which unfortunately closed in 2013 according to Caroline Ris-Grootveld. Nowadays, the Ji-school and a Museum are located in Shijiazuang, the capital of Hebei province that is run by Wang Xisan’s son, Wang Ziyong and his wife.

A detailed story of Wang Xisan is included in a 1990 study on inside painted snuff bottles published in Hong Kong (Leung, 1990). This includes the extraordinary story of Wang Xisan being sent back to his ancestral home in Yang Village, Fucheng County, Hebei Province, at the start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) to do hard labour. While there, he managed to demonstrate his skills and convinced his unit of his talent and ultimately was able to found the Ji School in 1977 shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution (Leung, 1990: 19-20). In the years following, until today, the Ji School has become the largest and most prominent school of inside painting snuff bottles in China, and Wang Xisan has become a true star of inside painting with many of his pupils also gaining recognition.

Amongst Wang Xisan’s pupils whose works are in the collection is Huang Shuangshui (b.1963), also known as Huang San, who started painting with Wang Xisan in 1988. Huang San is praised by Peter Bentley for his painting “in three-dimensional effect” (Patrick, 2007). This effect can be seen in his bottles painted with birds, fishes and flowers, as well as his miniature landscapes and of Chinese literati and warriors that are in the collection. Today Huang Shuangshui is a teacher at the Huangshui Xisan Painting Art Academy, a member of the China Arts and Crafts Artists Society, and the Hengshui Ji School Inside Painting Arts Society (Patrick, 2007; Wang, 2005).

Another praised inside painted snuff bottle maker collected by Grootveld is Wang Dongrui (b.1974), who started studying with Wang Xisan in 1991. His works feature characteristic black washes of paint and are described by Peter Bentley as filled “with traditional romantic charm and modern ink-wash marrow… distinguished by the great momentum and novel, fresh and graceful style” (Patrick, 2007). It is interesting to see these descriptions of quality and style, which consider important connoisseurship surrounding these inside painted snuff bottles leading to the value and appreciation of who can be considered masters. The way Grootveld wrote about style shows that he made a connection to styles that derive from European movements. On Wang Dongrui Grootveld wrote how “He changed his style in the direction of Expressionism.” Yet, Grootveld went on to note how he felt that “this style is not traditional enough.”

Another maker collected by Grootveld is Meng Shi (b.1975), who was originally named Zhao Haibao (b. 1975). His works are characterized by their “vivid tone, graceful colours, delicate and novel shapes and spirits” (Patrick, 2007), particularly using tones of pink and red in his works, which feature women, saints and butterflies.

Liu Yizi (b. 1963) is another critically acclaimed inside painted snuff bottle maker, who is known for enhancing bottles by challenging the traditional style of inside painting and instead using modern ideas. He is constantly changing his style, rather than copying. His works include landscapes painted with great insight and very original compositions showing different layers and perspectives, ranging from linear perspective to layered perspective often seen in traditional Chinese landscape painting. These layered perspectives allow the viewer to conduct a ‘spiritual travel’ (神游) through the landscape – moving from the ground up into the sky. Liu Yizi’s landscape works are often accompanied as well by a central figure sitting in meditation.

In Liu Yizi we can furthermore see the influence of Daoism on inside painted snuff bottles, a topic that is referenced by Jianyong Guo in his dissertation as an important aspect of inside painted snuff bottle traditions (Guo, 2016: 23-24, 83-85). Liu Yizi is well represented in the collection of Grootveld with 22 bottles. In a letter to artist Su Fengyi (b. 1960) Grootveld asks for a book of inside paintings by Liu Yizi, stating “I like to learn as much as possible” and how he would like to “get some more.”

Another artist collected by Grootveld is Lu Jianguang (1965-2018) who started painting at the age of eleven and was introduced to Wang Xisan ten years later at the age of 21. Lu Jianguang concentrated on human figures, including scantily-dressed women that have been popular with painters in China since the 1980s. With Lu Jianguang we can see his status in the arts and craft field in China, where he held various prominent positions in China. Lu Jianguang was a member of the Arts & Crafts Society, commissioner of the China Old-Aged Calligraphy and Painting Society, member of the Hebei Province Artist Society, and Vice Secretary-General of the Hengshui Ji School Inside Painting Society and of the Hengshui Xisan Inside Painting Art Academy, amongst other positions.

While there is debate among some artists, collectors and scholars, including Hugh Moss, Jianyong Guo, Michael Sullivan, and others, as to whether inside painted snuff bottles should be considered art as opposed to craft or fine arts, Robert Grootveld was clearly in the camp that they represent art. And what characterizes the makers profiled in the Collection in this regard is that they are all considered masters of inside painting snuff bottles and sometimes also of other glass, crystal and quartz objects. These makers are recognized for their painting in the Literati Painting style, wenrenhua (文人画), and of national painting, guohua (国画), which is distinguished as ink and brush painting that is adopted here for inside painted glass painting. Robert and many of these makers were close. Several pages of a catalogue owned by Robert Grootveld are also signed by the artists, reflecting his appreciation of them and their appreciation for him.

The next section looks a bit deeper at the making process to better understand the value of inside painted snuff bottles from the perspectives of the skills and techniques with which they were made.

The Making Process

An early article by Schuyler Cammann relates in great detail the methods used for making these inside painted snuff bottles, starting by pointing out how:

"A number of Chinese scholar-collectors in Old Peking cherished the inside-painted snuff bottles as delicate and refined examples of the two media most favoured in traditional Chinese art: painting and calligraphy. They deeply appreciated the way in which the best bottle-artists had skilfully achieved on a miniature scale those difficult effects which were customarily produced on large scrolls, or on album leaves, after many years of practice, or the way in which they had been able to reproduce familiar odes or famous sayings, often in the distinctive hands of the original composers, patiently written backwards from the inside of the bottle.' Indeed, the inside-painted snuff bottles actually do represent one of the last expressions of traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, and they deserve to be studied as such.” (Cammann, 1957)

The skill with which the artists have painted these miniatures is what generates their value, and their link to Chinese painting and calligraphy, Cammann wrote in 1957. What follows is a brief overview of Cammann writing on how the inside painted snuff bottles were made, together with a study by the late Bob C. Stevens from 1976, republished in 1994 (Stevens, 1994 [1976]).

Cammann does not agree with the assumption that inside painted snuff bottles follow the tradition of back painting introduced from Europe into China in the eighteenth century. “Not only the methods, but also the implements used were entirely different in each. This helps to account for the long-time span between the introduction of back painting to China and the invention of a method for doing it inside a snuff bottle” Cammann explains (297).

To prepare the bottles to accept the paint, an “etching solution of some weak acid (probably hydrochloric acid)” was used inside the bottles (Cammann, 1957: 299). Other sources list how “diamond dust,” “ball bearings” or “sand blasting” were used. The artist would lie on his back, holding the bottle up to the light to paint (Stevens, 1994 [1976]: 228). This is also written down by Cammann, following the description of American scholar and Sinologist Berthold Laufer (1874-1934) stating how “the artist would lie on his back with his elbows firmly braced, holding the bottle up against a bright light in one hand while applying the paint with a brush held in the other” (Cammann, 1957: 297). Another description describes how the snuff bottle maker is “sitting (not lying) at his workbench [holding] the bottle in one hand and the pen in the other…” (Stevens, 1994 [1976]: 234). The etching technique was introduced from the West in the late nineteenth century. Western techniques of shading were used and painters made use of photography for painting portraits. Inside painted bottles started to take hold from the late nineteenth century (Cammann, 1957: 299-300).

In a short essay published in 1998, snuff bottle collector Joseph (Joey) Silver provides further details on the making of inside painted snuff bottles. Silver describes how those made of glass or quartz are either “free-blown” or “mold-blown” (Silver, 1998: 15). The difficult process is roughening the inside surface for the ink or paint to adhere. Silver describes a process of “putting an abrasive, such as garnet dust, sand, and water, into the bottle and shaking it up until the interior surface of the bottle exhibited a uniformly roughened surface” (Silver, 1998: 15). Silver further mentions a rare set of bottles by Zhou Leyuan (active 1879-1893) that were painted on clear glass. The four glass bottles by Zhou Leyuan in the Grootveld Collection (nos. 616, 897, 935, 1124) all appear to be painted on a roughened surface, although bottle no. 616 seems relatively clearer than the other bottles.

Crystal bottles are carved and hollowed out from quartz and thereafter the interior surface would be polished (Silver, 1998: 15). Here we can look at a carved pear-shaped crystal bottle by Zhou Leyuan in the Grootveld Collection with on one side “a goldfish and fantailed carp swimming amongst lotus leaves, pods and flowers” and on the other side a “fan-tailed carp and a dragonfly flying above” (no. 83). Painting was done using a tool with a 15-17 cm handle and a fine brush end or a whittled tip of the tool itself. Traditionally artists used pens, brushes, or hooked bamboo strips (Stevens, 1994 [1976]: 228).

The intended design was first outlined in ink with colour wash added, one colour at a time. Silver explains how painting a single bottle would usually take three to twelve weeks (Silver, 1998: 15). Stevens states that ordinary bottles take three days to a week to paint and complex pieces would take a month up to two or three months. The artist’s name is recorded, a date added, and often a seal accompanies the name, with the name of the artist or school. “It is not uncommon to find the signature of one artist with the seal of another who was then working within a school or at another artist’s studio (Stevens, 1994 [1976]: 229). Details and the foreground are painted first in reverse glass painting, followed by the background (Stevens, 1994 [1976]: 233).

One reason why there are not many inside painted snuff bottles from the early 19th Century remaining is that those that were considered badly painted and of lesser quality were later washed and repainted (Yeo, 2022). The Grootveld Collection includes bottles from the first and second generation of makers working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which Peter Bentley identified as the middle period (中期), 1880-1930, as well as a great number of snuff bottles from the early modern period (近代早期), 1960-1980, the modern period (近代), 1980-2000, and the very modern period (现代), after 2000.

The next section discusses how to ‘read’ these bottles; their symbolic references and the stories depicted on these bottles. The essay will also reflect on where the innovations lie in making these bottles.

Symbolism and the World in Miniature

The way these snuff bottles depict auspicious symbols and the stories they tell offer us a way to appreciate inside painted snuff bottles. Therese Tse Batholomew, Curator Emeritus of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, writes how “auspicious decorations serve a practical function, because the Chinese believe that by using a snuff bottle bearing such symbols, their desires will be realized” (Bartholomew, 2020: 6).

Through the literature depicted on these inside painted snuff bottles one can gain further insight into the stories that the paintings on these bottles tell. This becomes evident in the catalogue of the exhibition Inkplay in Microcosm: Inside Painted Snuff Bottles, The Humphrey K. F. Hui Collection, which includes descriptions of the meanings of the depictions of different characters and subjects that are painted on one side, as well as the poems that are frequently painted on the reverse side (Yee, 2002).

Symbols used in Chinese snuff bottles come from a multiplicity of sources, including legends, history, philosophy, and geomancy. In her article, Bartholomew distinguishes symbols of Blessing, Joy, Sons, Passing Examinations and Becoming an Official, Rising in Rank, Wealth and Abundance, Longevity, and Peace and As You Wish (Bartholomew, 2020). Each item included on a snuff bottle has meaning. For example, Bartholomew writes how “The peony, flower of wealth and honor (fuguihua, 富贵花), growing behind the rock, adds an extra sentiment: ‘May you achieve longevity as well as wealth and honor’ (fugue maodie, 富贵耄耋)” (Batholomew, 2020: 17). Bottle 419 in the Grootveld Collection is painted by Ma Shaoxuan, ca. 1900, and depicts peony flowers behind rocks. On the reverse side, we see two roosters with a cockscomb blossom. “When roosters are combined,” Bartholomew writes, “with a cockscomb blossom, their combs and the blossom form a rebus for ‘May you continuously rise in rank’ (guanshang jianguan 官上加官) (Bartholomew, 2020: 13).

Another auspicious symbol, ‘Joy’, can be symbolized through butterflies. As Bartholomew writes, “Butterflies are symbols of joy as well as longevity” (Bartholomew, 2020: 8). The Grootveld Collection holds several bottles with butterflies, including a recent bottle, bottle 411, by Song Yiming (Da Cheng, b. 1974) of the Qin School from Xi’an city, Shaanxi Province, painted during the ‘very modern’ period, after 2000. Or the rectangular bottle by Ma Shaoxuan of the ‘Jing School’ painted during the ‘middle period’, 1870-1949, depicting finely painted butterflies. The reverse side is inscribed with a poem and signed Ma Shaoxuan. 

Next, we can look at bottles depicting landscapes, animals, and all types of sceneries by Su Fengyi (b. 1960) of the Ji School from the ‘very modern’ period after 2000. Su Fengyi was praised by Vincent Fausone, former Vice President of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, as “one of the best Chinese Snuff Bottle Artists of the new generation,”as listed in his short biography on the website of William Patrick (Patrick, 2007). Bottle 718, depicting a deer in a winter forest, was featured on the cover of the Winter 2019 edition of the Journal of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society. The diversity of scenes, styles, and techniques by Su Fengyi can be further seen in the delicate depiction of a swimming frog and a frog on a water lily in bottle 309. Or in the intricate blue and white painted scene of rocks and trees in a river, in bottle 227, depicting the beginning of spring.

There are 57 snuff bottles by Su Fengyi in the Grootveld Collection, with a wide variety of images, ranging from landscapes to portraits and finely painted fish swimming in grassy waters. Fish (yu, 鱼) represent “abundance,” “surplus,” or “plenty” (yu 余). Goldfish represent gold and jade. Furthermore, “goldfish (jinyu, 金鱼) in a pond (tang 塘) stand for a household filled with gold and jade (jinyu mantang 金玉满堂).” Meanwhile, the carp (liyu 鲤鱼) stands for profit (li 利)”, as described in detail by Bartholomew (Bartholomew, 2020: 13-14). Other symbols include immortals, often eight (baxian 八仙), the crane (he 鹤he), deer (lu 鹿) sometimes with the “fungus of immortality” (lingzhi 赤芝) and the peach (shoutao 寿桃) as described by Bartholomew (Bartholomew, 2020: 14-15). Through these symbols as well as through textual references in poems accompanying the paintings, one can discover a world of hidden meanings in these snuff bottles.

These inside painted snuff bottles offer us new ways of looking and of seeing. They ask us to zoom in and focus our view, unfold our perspective and experience the world in miniature. This is part of the path toward appreciating art. To behold something. In the case of the snuff bottles, to let the world in miniature unfold itself for the viewer. By seeing the world in miniature unfold, one is better able to understand the unfolding of the real world and the universe. All are interconnected. The world, the natural landscape, and its multifaceted representations are all interconnected.

(Free) Spirit

Traditionally, the production of art and craft in China connects two concepts. The first concept is the rigid observance of rules, role models, and a set of technical skills when creating an artwork or piece of craft. The second concept is a belief in the spirit, free-flowing energy, and expression when creating an artwork or piece of craft. The interaction between skill, experience and (free) expression determines the quality of the work.

How skill, experience and expression combine into one is described in the Book of Zhuangzi, a Daoist classic, written sometime in the 4th century BCE by Zhuangzi (Zhuang Zhou, c.369-286 BCE). This is the story of Cook Ding who was so skilful in carving that he never had to change his knife (Watson, 2013: 19-21). As Cook Ding explains to his ruler, Lord Wenhui, “When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now—now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop, and the spirit moves where it wants.” (Watson, 2013: 20).

Similarly, a master painter can be recognized for painting in ways that the (free) spirit moves where it wants. It is an aesthetic quality that comes about through action, which can be seen very well in the use of the brush in Chinese calligraphy and the gestural body movement of the calligrapher. In a similar style, we can see the Chinese painter, seeing a particular gesture in his or her painting that lets the spirit wander freely. Something similar is also the case in acknowledging the skill and mastery of inside painted snuff bottle makers, as is discussed in the thesis by snuff bottle maker and art historian Jianyong Guo.

Jianyong Guo writes about a “New movement” of inside painting initiated by Liu Yizi (b. 1963) in 1994, a painter whose work was discussed earlier and is praised for its innovation of style. For Guo, “The new movement lays more emphasis upon the renewal and transformation of the artist’s conception, and advocates that inside painting needs to have ‘a spirit of the times’ – modern times, not those of the past.” Instead of focusing on “technique” artists should focus on “conveying feeling” and this allows the distinction between the artist and the craftsman (Guo, 2016: 54). Without naming the “new movement” K.H. Yeo also indicated the development of artists starting in the 1990s wanting to change the medium and style of painting (Yeo, 2022). There seems to be a clear idea that the 1990s has brought new developments in inside painting.

This essay started with the observation of Robert Grootveld when first encountering inside painted snuff bottles in an ‘arts and craft factory in Beijing, wondering how “Art with a capital A can come from a factory” (Grootveld). Through examining this comment, this essay has aimed to draw attention to an appreciation for inside painted snuff bottles as evidenced by the Grootveld Collection, employing a discovery tour of inside painted snuff bottles and their makers. This essay is in no way meant to be all-inclusive, but rather is a personal journey into inside painted snuff bottles that will hopefully lead to further appreciation by a greater number of people – based on the wonder of these miniature worlds that inside painted snuff bottles offer the viewer. See it for yourself in the Grootveld Collection.



(Bartholomew, 2020) Bartholomew, T. T. (2020, Autumn). Hidden Wishes in Snuff Bottles. Journal of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, 6-17

(Cammann, 1957) Cammann, S. (1957, June). “Chinese Inside-Painted Snuff Bottles and Their Makers”. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1/2.

(Chabot Museum, 2017) Chabot Museum, De Stijl van Chabot – Schilderijen en beelden uit eigen collectie (The style of Chabot – Paintings and sculptures from our own collection), exhibition, Chabot Museum, 2017-2018, text online: (Accessed 12 April 2022) /

(Chen, 2021a) Chen, D. (2021, May 16). “Introduction: Schools of Inside Painted Snuff Bottle” [Blog Post]. Retrieved from (Accessed 15 February)

(Chen, 2021b) Chen, D. (2021, June 2). “Wang Xisan: the greatest master in modern snuff bottle” [Blog Post]. Retrieved from (Accessed 7 February 2022)

(Guo, 2016) Guo, J. (2016). “‘Inside Painting’, as used for Chinese snuff bottles, suggested as a new model for contemporary glass art.” Doctoral thesis, University of Sunderland.

(Grootveld, 1973) Robert Grootveld, Letter to his wife, 24 November, 1973

(Kleiner, 1994) Kleiner, R. (1994) Chinese Snuff Bottles. Inside Asia series. New York, Oxford University Press.

(Leung, 1990) Leung, J.H. (1990). A New Look of Chinese Inside Painted Snuff Bottles. Hong Kong, Wang Fung Printing Co.

(MacFarquar, 2006) MacFarquar, R. (2006) Mao’s Last Revolution. Cambridge, MA and London, UK, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006

(Moss, 1993) Moss, H. (1993) “The Lingnan School of Snuff Bottle Interior Painters, Introduction and Part I: Gan Xuanwen”. In Journal of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, Spring.

(Moss and Sargent, 2019) Moss, H. and Sargent, S. (2019) The Water Pine and Stone Retreat Collection of Snuff Bottles, Part Two: Non-Imperial Influence over the Snuff Bottle Arts. Section on Inside-Painted Snuff Bottles. Online Collection Catalogue. Retrieved from

(Patrick, 2007) Patrick, W.H. “Snuff Bottle Collector”, 2007-2022. Retrieved from (Accessed 7 February 2022). This source is the same as (Wang, 2005)

(Silver, 1998) Silver, J. (1998) “The Technique of Painting Inside Bottles”. In Worlds in A Bottle, Chinese Inside Painted Snuff Bottles and Traditional Chinese Painting: The Joseph Baruch Silver Collection. Tel Aviv Museum.

(Stevens, 1994 [1976]) Stevens, B.C. (1994). The Collector’s Book of Snuff Bottles, Limited Reprint Edition, Illinois, Art Media Resources Ltd. Originally published in 1976.

(Sullivan, 1983) Sullivan, M. (1983). The Arts of China, 3rd edition. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press.

(Tan, 2017) Tan, Y. (August 31, 2017) “Bapo Painting: China’s ‘8 Brokens’. Asian Art Newspaper. Retrieved from

(Wang, 2005) Wang X., ed. (2005) Zhongguo neihua tudian/ Chinese Inside Painting of the Modern Age, Shijiangzhuang: Hebei meishu chubanshe.

(Watson, 2013) The Complete Works of Zhuangzi. Trans. Burton Watson. (2013). New York, Columbia University Press.

(Yeo, 2022). Conversation with K.H. Yeo on Zoom, 7 April 2022

(Yee, 2002) Yee, L.S. (2002). Inkplay in Microcosm: Inside Painted Snuff Bottles, The Humphrey K. F. Hui Collection. Hong Kong, Art Museum, The Chinese Museum of Hong Kong.


[1] I am grateful to Andrew Singer for pointing this out.

[2] I am grateful to Andrew Singer for pointing this out.