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Current Exhibits

Lifting the Spirit and Body: The Art and Culture of Snuff Bottles
Lifting the Spirit and Body: The Art and Culture of Snuff Bottles
  • Dates: 2012/07/25~
  • Gallery: Exhibition Area I 303

Exhibit Info

The origins of snuff lie with the native peoples of South America. Snuff consists of quality tobacco leaves finely ground into a powder, to which floral and other fragrances are added. After fermentation, it is then sealed and aged. As opposed to rolled tobacco, which is burned to inhale its smoke, snuff is directly sniffed through the nostril. With its stimulating sneeze-inducing effect and unique aroma, snuff is said to clear the nasal passages.

In the sixteenth century, snuff was an exotic material prized for its medicinal effects. Finding its way into Europe, snuff quickly became accepted by the ruling elite of society, including royalty, nobility, and even members of the Church. By the seventeenth century, snuff was not only valued for its medicinal qualities, but also as a medium for social exchange in high society. During the reign of the French king Louis XIV, snuff reached a height of fashion and spread throughout Europe. It was during this period of popularity that snuff boxes, which were used to store snuff, became treasured accessories for their extravagant decoration and to express social standing. Combining precious materials and skilled techniques, they came to reflect the height of European trends in refinement and luxury at the time.

Starting in the second half of the seventeenth century, the Western fashion of consuming snuff made its way into China. Snuff, with its medicinal and invigorating effects, and opulent snuff boxes became a medium in diplomatic gift-giving at the time. Snuff entered the Qing dynasty court by means of European missionaries, envoys, and merchants, being popular even with the emperor himself. The inhaling of snuff was a new trend in China, but differences in climate and habit made European snuff boxes unsuitable for use there, turning them into treasured curios of the emperor instead. Under the Kangxi Emperor, the Imperial Household began manufacturing snuff bottles featuring a small opening, large body, and stopper with a small spoon, representing a new vessel of the Qing court that was portable and airtight to preserve freshness. Generally speaking, during the reigns of the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong Emperors, Western painted enamelware and glass manufacturing techniques along with various forms of decoration were skillfully combined to create highly distinctive snuff bottles.

From the Qianlong reign onwards, the production of small and exquisite snuff bottles had already become a fashion, with all kinds of craftsmanship techniques appearing in miniature proportions. Consequently, the usage of materials, forms, and techniques all reached new heights of skill and design. At the same time, snuff and their bottles became an indispensable part of social interaction in the Qing dynasty. Whether snuff bottles decorated the home, were used as gifts of reward, or worn to decorate oneself, all of them (including such miniature specialty accessories as the snuff funnel and dish) came to manifest social standing and to symbolize refined taste. Furthermore, Chinese snuff boxes fusing elements of East and West as well as Western snuff bottles catering to Chinese imperial taste, came to reflect the popularity of snuff in their own way through their respective production of vessels.

This exhibition is divided into four parts: "Of Western Import: Snuff Boxes from Europe," "New Developments: Snuff Bottles by the Qing Court," "Spreading in Popularity: A Competition of Splendor," and "Converging Tastes: Social and Cultural Exchanges." The display includes various snuff boxes and bottles as well as related paraphernalia, reflecting how the Qing court responded to the European fashion of snuff to create a unique culture of snuff bottles, at the same time revealing an appreciation for the beauty of snuff vessels that brings together the best of Chinese and Western craftsmanship.
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