PROPERTY FROM THE SKINNER FAMILY COLLECTION
The inscription on the top of the panels tells the story of the sixteen eminent luohan, each meticulously depicted inhabiting the rocky landscape. Close personal disciples of the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni, the enlightened luohan were a popular subject in the Qianlong reign. Their iconography, with distinctive exaggerated, almost grotesque, features, originated with an influential rendition of each luohan by the famous late Tang (618-907) and Five Dynasties (907-960) monk and painter Guanxiu (823-912), who saw them appear this way in a dream. The legendary paintings by Guanxiu were stored at Shengyin Si in Hangzhou, which the Emperor visited during his second Southern Inspection Tour in 1757. The Emperor was convinced that they were the original paintings recorded in the inventory of the collection of Emperor Huizong (r. 1100-1126), Xuanhe huapu [The Xuanhe catalogue of paintings]. Deeply moved by these images, he composed a eulogy to each luohan, renumbered them and provided a translation of their names in Chinese. He further ordered the court artist Ding Guanpeng (active 1737-68) to create copies.
While not the first Manchu ruler to actively support Buddhism, the Qianlong Emperor's engagement with Buddhist causes represents an exception. A true believer and a genuine practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, his fervent support of the religion was both a personal and political choice. Buddhist images, including those of luohan, proliferated during the reign, as they were considered vehicles for the dissemination of Buddhist teachings, and therefore a means to increase one’s merit. Luohan were also believed to be guardians of the dharma and of religious sites until the arrival of the Future Buddha Maitreya, hence ‘the conceptual relationship between luohan and the Qianlong Emperor is not tangential’ (Nancy Berliner, The Emperor’s Private Paradise. Treasures from the Forbidden City, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, 2010, p. 156). The fifth Dalai Lama had declared the Qing emperors to be cakravartin, and according to Tibetan Buddhist teachings the appearance of a cakravartin fortold the arrival of Maitreya.
A jichimu table screen inlaid with 500 luohan carved from ivory, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Hu Desheng, A Treasury of Ming & Qing Dynasty Palace Furniture, Beijing, 2007, vol. 1, pl. 389, together with a sixteen-panel zitan screen inspired by Guanxiu's paintings, each panel inlaid in jade with a luohan, pl. 380; and a three-panel screen carved from jichimu, ivory and jade with eight luohan, was sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 3rd April 2019, lot 3651. Compare also a jade plaque with luohan in a mountains landscape, illustrated in Geoffrey Wills, Jade of the East, New York, 1972, pl. 66; one carved from lacquer, from the collection of Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Bodwich Cottell, sold in our London rooms, 4th November 2009, lot 123; and another sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 3rd April 2018, lot 3626.
While Guanxiu’s paintings of luohan are now lost, Ding Guanpeng’s versions are held in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and were included in the exhibition The All Complete Qianlong: The Aesthetic Tastes of the Qing Emperor Gaozong, Taipei, 2013, cat. no. III-1.18.
The present pair of panels has a particularly illustrious provenance, having been in the collections of both A.W. Bahr (1877-1959) and William Cobbett Skinner (1857-1947).
A.W. Bahr was born in Shanghai in 1877 to a German father and a Chinese mother. Working in China as a coal merchant and general importer, he built a large collection of important Chinese art. In 1911 he authored Old Chinese Porcelain and Works of Art, which featured many works from his own collection which had been exhibited in Shanghai in November 1908. In 1916, the American Art Association in New York held an auction of Chinese works from his collection entitled The Art of Ancient China. A Remarkable Collection formed by Connoisseur and Authority on Ancient Chinese Art Mr A.W. Bahr for over Thirty Years a Resident of Shanghai, which which featured the present panels as lot 500, purchased in the sale by William Skinner.
William Cobbett Skinner (1857-1947) was born into the illustrious Skinner family of Massachusetts. His father, William Skinner (1834-1902), had emigrated from England to the United States in 1843 and founded a lucrative textile business on the East Coast. By 1860, his success as an industrialist was cemented and the area surrounding his textile mills was simply referred to as 'Skinnerville'. William Cobbett joined the family business and continued it following his father's death in 1902. By 1912, Skinner's was the largest silk mill in the world. William and his sister Belle Skinner inherited their parent's home 'Wisteriahurst', Holyoke, Massachusetts and several homes in New York City, and are believed to have decorated them with Asian art purchased from auctions in New York as well as from their travels to China and Japan in 1889 and 1909. Both William and Belle attended the auction of the Prince Kung Collection at the American Art Galleries on the 27th-28th February 1913 and were named in the press reports at the time as one of the buyers in the sales, corroborated by William's own diary entry at the time where he writes that they 'bought many things', including two large cloisonné enamel palace burners for which they paid over $4,000. His diary entry for 20th January 1916 records his purchase of a 'pair of teakwood panels, #500', corresponding with the present lot, which were described as having formerly been in the collection of the Imperial family. The panels are believed to have hung in the Skinner mansion at 36 East 39th Street in New York City and have remained in the family since.
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