Trade between China and the West has proliferated throughout history, either through the Silk Road or maritime routes. With the closure of the silk routes across Persia to Asia by the Turks in the 14th and 15th centuries, Europeans looked for new ways to access the Far East and its highly coveted silk, tea, porcelains and luxury goods. The Portuguese were the first to achieve this at sea with Vasco da Gama, and the Spanish, Dutch and English quickly followed. By the end of the 18th century, England, Holland, France, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Spain and America all had an established presence in Canton, the only trading port open to foreigners as ordained by the Chinese court until the First Opium War. Images of this bustle of trade and commerce come down to us today in the form of China Trade Paintings, commissioned by merchants to take home as souvenirs. Interestingly many, if not all of the trading ports significant during this period remain highly important hubs of commerce today.

CANTON AND THE PEARL RIVER, INCLUDING HONG KONG, MACAO, TAIPING, WHAMPOA AND OTHER HISTORICAL LOCATIONS DATE: 1864. © CHRONICLE/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO


This September, Sotheby’s New York Asia Week will present a variety of trade paintings at auction. Scroll down to learn more about China’s various trade ports with the West and what they have developed into today.

Canton (Guangzhou)

Conveniently situated at the mouth of the Pearl River, Canton was the largest of all treaty ports and economically the most important city in Southern China. The city overlooked Honam Island where Western traders were occasionally entertained by wealthy Chinese merchants.

MAGNIFICENT VIEW OF THE PEARL RIVER OFF HONAM ISLAND, CANTON. QING DYNASTY, CIRCA 1840. ESTIMATE $200,000–300,000.

The present painting depicts a port view of the Honam waterfront as viewed from the European factories. Large, well painted and exquisitely detailed, it is unusual in that it does not illustrate any Western boats. Instead, an array of sampans, junks, tanka, Mandarin boats and a pair of ‘flower boats’ are shown.  Behind this vantage point would be the Thirteen Factories neighborhood, the principal and only legal site of Western warehouses and stores. This painting would have been commissioned as a souvenir by an affluent Western trader in Canton to send or take home.

PEARL RIVER OFF HONAM ISLAND (HAIZHU DISTRICT), CANTON (GUANGZHOU), CHINA, PRESENT DAY.

©HENRY WESTHEIM PHOTOGRAPHY/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Today, Guangzhou is still one of the most important cities in China, functioning as a gateway to the manufacturing behemoth that is the Pearl River Delta. The former Thirteen Factories site was destroyed multiple times by fire or war, and is now part of the Guangzhou Cultural Park. This photo shows the mainland of Guangzhou connected by a bridge to Honam Island, recognized as part of Haizhu District in Guangzhou city.

Shanghai

After the victory of the British Army in the First Opium War in 1842, five treaty ports including Shanghai were opened to foreign powers. The British Settlement was set up on the shore of the Huangpu River, on the Bund south of Suzhou Creek. The Americans followed shortly after, setting up on the other side of the creek.

VIEW OF THE AMERICAN SETTLEMENT, SHANGHAI. QING DYNASTY, CIRCA 1855. ESTIMATE $150,000–200,000.

It is rare to find a painting depicting a panorama of the American Settlement at Shanghai. The canvas illustrates the British Consulate on the left, Suzhou Creek and Will’s Bridge, American houses, the land first occupied by the American Episcopal Church Mission, the American Ground with the First Protestant Episcopal Church, and the American consulate flying the flag. 

TODAY’S BUND AREA IN SHANGHAI, CHINA. ©NOVARC IMAGES / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Today, Shanghai’s Bund area serves as one of the city’s main financial and cultural districts, teeming with luxury hotels, entertainment and a world-famous skyline. Many of its colonial and European buildings remain, and the site of the British Consulate now forms part of the Peninsula Hotel. The present photograph depicts Suzhou Creek feeding into the Huangpu River, where the two settlements would have originally faced each other.

Macau

Leased to the Portuguese by the Jiajing emperor (r. 1522-1567) as a reward for helping to fight pirates, Macau is the oldest European settlement in China. With the closure of all other Chinese ports except Canton during the reign of the Qianlong  emperor (r. 1711 – 1799) , Macau took on an increasingly important role in the China trade.

VIEW OF THE PRAYA GRANDE, MACAU QING DYNASTY, CIRCA 1850. ESTIMATE $20,000–30,000.

The Praya Grande (‘Large Bay’), known as Nam Wan (‘South Bay’) in Chinese, is located on the eastern side of the Macau peninsula. Its distinctive curved shoreline and rows of European-style buildings made it one of the most popular port scenes in the genre of trade paintings. The present scene depicts the bay from south to north, with the Fortaleza do Monte at the center, St. Paul’s Church , the Palacio and the East India Company,  with the Guia Fortress at the highest point on the right.  Trading and fishing boats dock in the  calm waters . This vantage point is also rare as most artists depicted the bay from north to south.

TODAY’S PRAYA GRANDE IN MACAU, CHINA. ©THOMAS LEHNE/ LOTUSEATERS / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

As with Guangzhou and Shanghai, Macau’s landscape has changed dramatically over the years, and only a few colonial buildings remain. Teeming with high-end casinos, skyscrapers and dazzling lights, it is barely recognizable from the idyllic scene pictured above.

Whampoa (Pazhou, Guangzhou)

Approximately fifty miles north of Macau, Western ships trading at Canton anchored at Whampoa. Payments partly based on the size of the ship were required to do business  in China. At Whampoa, linguists, agents, and compradors were hired, and taxes (and bribes) were paid. Only after this were the foreign merchants allowed to unload their ship’s cargo upriver towards Canton.

PROPERTY FROM THE ESTATES OF PRICE AND ISOBEL H. GLOVER. VIEW OF WHAMPOA ANCHORAGE QING DYNASTY, CIRCA 1840. ESTIMATE $6,000–8,000.

The present painting depicts an American three-masted ship at Whampoa Anchorage, with junks and sampans ferrying people across the water, and foreign warehouses in the background.

MODERN-DAY WHAMPOA IS NOW KNOWN AS PAZHOU ISLAND, A SUBDISTRICT OF DOWNTOWN GUANGZHOU, CHINA.

©GZRAYSTOCKPHOTO / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Modern-day Whampoa  is known as Pazhou Island.  A subdistrict of downtown Gungzhou, with modern steel and glass skyscrapers, it looks radically different from the scene painted around 1840. Continuing on with its  historical role as a major trading and port hub, it is the site of the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

Important Chinese Art

13 September 2017 | New York