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The Art of Eglomise - October 2002 Newsletter


When art of “eglomise” is certainly one of the world's most admired crafts for reasons that include its beauty, dedication, and skill required. Many associate this art with glassware produced in nineteenth century China, Europe, and America. While these characteristics may be true, the development of eglomise is still debated including its origin and even the correctness of its name.

As a result, Eglomise is also referred to as “verre eglomise,” “reverse-painting,” “inside painting,” “back painting on glass,” or “glass gilding.” The term eglomise, nevertheless, was created in reference to an eighteenth century French artist who discovered that he could preserve his pictures and other work with decorated glass.

While the term eglomise dates back to the 18th century, the art of eglomise in all likelihood does not; many believe the art form to have appeared hundreds or even thousands of years before. One such claim is that the art originated in China during 770 B.C. while another claims that Alexandria, Egypt has the oldest eglomise pieces from around the first century A.D. As well, one source asserts that third and fourth century A.D. Europe is where the art can be traced back to. A more popular argument is the notion that the art form developed in Italy during the Renaissance.

Which ever thought may be true, all seem to agree on the qualities and significance of the art. Essentially, eglomise is painting done on the inside of glass or any translucent material. It is also common that such painting is gilded or layered with thin pieces of gold. Another characteristic that is agreed upon is that eglomise is a very meticulous art which demands patience and a prolonged process. Eglomise requires that a painting is completely done in reverse with all the shadows, highlights, and details done first.

With such concentration, precision, and originality inherent of them, many eglomise pieces, especially those from the 18th century, are extremely valued and can be worth thousands of dollars. Some of the most expensive and valued are those that were produced in 18th century China. During that time period, China , Canton in particular, became a major producer of eglomise items. It is also said that European missionaries, an Italian Jesuit according to one source, brought the art form to China early in that century. Consequently, Europeans sent certain items or pictures there to be painted in eglomise style. The popularity of China's eglomise artwork, however, may not just be attributed to the willingness of many Chinese to produce such goods but also to the beautiful pieces they created which featured landscapes, seascapes, and other natural scenes.

Out of China's booming eglomise trade came another eglomise art form—snuff bottle painting. Like eglomise, snuff bottle painting incorporated reverse-painting techniques on glass; such work on the inside of a bottle, however, made this art form more difficult to master. While Canton still remained a major eglomise art producer, many snuff bottles were also manufactured in Beijing, Liaoning, parts of Mongolia and Tibet, as well as Hengshui—another so called 'capitol' of the art of inside painting. As far as how this particular art form developed, there are at least two explanations.

The first explanation is a story which claims that an official in China was on a business trip and took rest at a temple on the way. While there, the snuff-addicted official took out his bottle only to find that it was just about empty. He then proceeded to fetch out the remainder of snuff with a narrow stick, leaving marks and lines on the inside of the bottle. After the official left, having left his empty snuff bottle as well, one of the temple monks saw the bottle. As the story goes, the monk became inspired by the markings which later resulted in the snuff bottle painting form of art.

The second, perhaps more logical explanation, is that the artists producing eglomise crafts were already influenced by the reverse-painting technique and simply applied it to snuff bottles. But why the use of snuff bottles, one may wonder, as they are difficult to reach into, much less paint inside? This, of course, may be attributed to the fact that snuff, and consequently snuff bottles, were some of the other major products in China during the eighteenth century. It was believed that snuff--ground up tobacco powder--enhanced eyesight, refreshed the body, helped with diseases, and increased blood circulation.

While many types of snuff bottles were being made, such as ceramic, enamel, ivory, agate, metal, and silver, the bottles made out of glass and crystal were obviously more suited for inside painting. The qualities of the glass and crystal used also became the basis for the three recognized stages of the art form. The first stage, called the “initial,” is characterized by snuff bottles that featured plain, simple drawings—a result of the smooth surface of the bottle interior which made the paint hard to adhere to. The next two stages, “growing,” and “mature,” are characterized by the increases in detail and craftsmanship with the snuff bottle painting art. These advances were achieved as artists began to add iron, sand, or emery to the inside of the snuff bottles with which they would shake and rub to produce a textured surface capable of holding paint.

As with eglomise, the process of completing a painted snuff bottle includes concentration, patience, and attention to detail. The painting is also done in the same technique with all the details and layers done in reverse. With openings that are only 4 to 5 centimeters wide, however, snuff bottle painting also requires the use of a special, curved brush. This small tool is shaped to fit in the narrow bottles and allow the artist to reach the interior. With such small areas and many details to include, snuff bottle painting takes at least two or three days to complete. The end results, nevertheless, are works of art that are quite extraordinary and amazing when one realizes all the effort and originality put into each piece.

While China's eglomise and snuff bottle trade are not as they were over 200 years ago, China is still known for its eglomise crafts and continues to produce many today. Snuff bottle painting has even become so much an art of its own that there are three main schools that are devoted to its teaching. One of these schools is the Xisan Art Academy in the famous inside painting city of Hengshui; Beijing Studio in Beijing, and the Shandong School in Boshan are the two other major schools. Students spend years at these schools in order to master the art.

Snuff bottle painting, along with other eglomise pieces, gained popularity for their ability to preserve artwork or other pictures. With such delicately finished paintings and fragile containers, there are still several tips one should remember to help preserve snuff bottles and their paintings:

-Try to keep the snuff bottle cover or lid on to prevent the wearing of the paint inside
-Keep the bottle in a dry environment, avoiding extreme high and low temperatures
-Do not wash or use any cleaning solutions on the inside of the bottle
-Keep the outside of the bottle clean and polished to allow light to shine through and display the painting at its best

Eglomise art work is typically found in mirrors, clocks, tabletops, panels, snuff bottles, eggs, and other shaped glass or crystal. Which ever form the craft is in, however, eglomise always remains stunning and beautiful. The craft itself is a spectacular example of masterful artistry and fine skill.

With no two pieces exactly alike, each hand-crafted piece is an original, adding to the uniqueness of the artwork. As elegant as they are, eglomise pieces make wonderful gifts and decorations for the home or office. With the holiday season coming up, take a look at Mrs. Lin's eglomise collection and choose a gift that will last a lifetime


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