There exist many portrait paintings of past emperors and their consorts, as recorded in the archives of the Qing dynasty palace, from the first Qing dynasty reign of Shunzhi, until the reign of the Xuantong Emperor at the end of the dynasty. All dressed in the full official regalia of the period, they provide us with a wealth of information about these individuals and their appearances. This is especially the case during the Qianlong period. The Qianlong Emperor lived to the ripe old age of 89, and reigned for 60 of those years, and even after abdicating in favour of his heir the Jiaqing Emperor, he still reigned supreme for a further three years. During this long reign, he frequently and consistently commissioned artists to paint portraits of him and his empress and consorts. From his youth as the heir apparent, right through his advanced age, he was painted at various stages and intervals by different artists. Not only do these provide visual testaments of the Qianlong Emperor, but they also immortalise his consorts in these portraits.
In the first half of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign, the Italian painter Lang Shining (Giuseppe Castiglione) painted several portraits of the emperor and his consorts. He was born in 1688 (the 27th year of the Kangxi reign, Qing Dynasty) and was a painter at the imperial court from the 54th year of the Kangxi reign (1715) when he arrived in China, and never retired from his position, passing away in the 31st year of Qianlong’s reign (1766). His remains have been buried far from his homeland, in Beijing and still rest there today. Lang Shining played an important role in painting such imperial portraits. The works that remain allow us to appreciate the fruit of his labour, and are also noted down in the records of the imperial palace.
Lang Shining received his basic artistic training in Europe and had a strong grasp of the fundamentals of portraiture. His true-to-life portraits were greatly admired by the Qianlong Emperor, and as such, resulted in his commissioning Lang Shining to paint many of these imperial portraits. Therefore, many of the portraits painted during the first half of Qianlong’s reign were by Lang Shining’s own hands.
However, because most of these portraits do not bear the artist’s name or seal, it has created problems in attributing these works. This is because while it was deemed a great honour to be able to paint the portrait of the emperor or his consorts, it was, in fact, a duty to the ruler, and as such, to show due respect to the emperor and the members of the imperial family. Artists were not usually allowed to leave their mark on these portraits. In the Palace Museum, Beijing, and the National Palace Museum, Taipei, there are collections of imperial portraits, especially those portraying the imperial family in ceremonial costumes. Although the lack of an artist’s signature or seal may seem to present problems in the task of authentication, identification and attribution during the Qianlong period, the differences in techniques and styles between the European painters at the Chinese court, and the Chinese painters working in the Palace can be readily discerned by experts analysing this field and thus do not necessarily pose a problem.
We now turn to the Portrait of Consort Chunhui. It is a portrait of one of the Qianlong Emperor’s consorts, which is painted in ink and colour on silk, and measures 198 by 123 cm. It does not bear any inscription or artist’s seal, and is also without any Qing official collector’s seal. However, on the right hand side of the subject matter, there is a line in calligraphic script, naming her Consort Chunhui. This is undoubtedly by the hand of the Qianlong Emperor. Information from records state that this consort was of Manchu origin, called Su Jiashi, daughter of Su Zhaonan, born in the 52nd year of the Kangxi reign (1713), and was two years younger than the Qianlong Emperor. During the Yongzheng period she was a lady-in-waiting, and soon after Qianlong ascended to the throne she was made imperial consort, and in the 2nd year of Qianlong’s reign (1737) was named Chunfei. In the 10th year of Qianglong’s reign (1745), she became Chun Guifei. In the 25th year of the Qianlong reign (1760), she was made Chun Huang Guifei. She passed away the same year at the age of 48. Posthumously, she was awarded the title ‘Consort Chunhui’ by the Emperor. This painting is currently the only example of her in full ceremonial costume, and the inscription by the emperor, most likely written after her death, demonstrates his remembrance of his deceased consort.
From this scroll, it is evident that the painter was skilled in analysing structure and perspective – the subject matter’s facial features are rendered using both light and shade, and are clear and distinct. In addition, the sides of the nose and cheeks have been painted to provide three-dimensionality, at the same time intricately depicting the flesh and tone of skin. The artist was also proficient in painting the throne and floor covering. Chunhui is also depicted on Lang Shining’s Portraits of the Qianlong Emperor, the Empress, and Eleven Imperial Consorts (fig. 1), now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. In this work, produced in the first year of Qianlong’s reign, Chunhui is fourth in the sequence (fig. 2). Comparing the two portraits of the imperial consort, it is clear that they are of the same person, save for the fact that the subject in the present portrait is slightly older than that in the group portrait; both portraits are by the same artist. As the Portraits of the Qianlong Emperor, the Empress, and Eleven Imperial Consorts is inarguably by the hand of Lang Shining, even though there is no seal on the painting, by inference, the European style and technique used in the present scroll attribute the painting to Lang Shining. As a distinctive European style can be detected, as well as taking into account the striking similarities, it is not unreasonable to attribute this work to Lang Shining. However as the lines of drapery, the throne and the carpet are painted with a more Chinese technique, it is likely that these areas were painted by Chinese students of Lang Shining, filling in the outline that he had left for them to complete. This style, however, still retains Qing official style.
Similar portraits of consorts in ceremonial costume include the Portrait of Empress Xiaoxian (fig. 3) as well as the Portrait of Consort Huixian (fig. 4), both in the Palace Museum, Beijing. These are painted with similar stylistic features attention to detail and a distinct European flavour, and are therefore all attributed to Lang Shining. Naturally, during Lang Shining’s earlier years, his artistic victor allowed for his ability to use close detailing in the rendering of the subject, and he would have completed the whole painting single-handedly; in his later years, his advanced age did not allow for this, and he then focused on the main subject matter, leaving his Chinese students to fill in the outline of the clothing and the background, which gave rise to the latent inconsistencies in his portrait paintings.
Guiseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), a native of Milan, arrived in Beijing in 1715 and served under three emperors, Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong for over 51 years. As a Jesuit missionary he entered the milieu of the imperial workshops and obtained the patronage and favour of all three emperors. He was trained by his order as a painter of religious subjects before being sent to China and became an accomplished painter. At the Chinese court he was obliged to paint under the direct supervision of the emperor. Among the three rulers he served under, the Qianlong Emperor was possibly the most demanding, supervising every aspect of the work down to the smallest detail. By adapting traditions and Chinese media, he created a unique style and developed a manner of painting that was pleasing to the imperial taste. He brought Western conventions of shading and depiction of volume and space to his courtly subject matter and became an expert in painting on silk and on paper as well as doing murals.
Castiglione excelled in portrait painting, a style much in demand for ceremonial occasions and in the event of an imperial death. The Qianlong Emperor’s admiration of his portraits is apparent from comments inscribed on the hanging scrolls Spring’s Peaceful Message in the Palace Museum, Beijing, and illustrated in Yu Hui, ‘Naturalism in Qing Imperial Group Portraiture’, Orientations, vol. 26, no. 7, July/August 1995, p. 81. Yu (ibid., p. 80) translates the emperor’s comments as follows:
‘Castiglione excelled in portraying likeness, (this portrait) was painted for me in my youth’.
The present painting is one of the very few extant imperial portraits that can be unequivocally attributed to Castiglione. It is very close in style and identical in its setting to Castiglione’s famous Portrait of Empress Xiaoxian in the Palace Museum, Beijing, which is illustrated in Qingdai gongting shenghuo, Hong Kong, 1985, p. 184. Another painting using the same setting, but perhaps executed by other court painters working closely together with Castiglione, and not inscribed by the Emperor like the present painting, is the Portrait of Empress Xiaoyi Chu, also in the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in the exhibition, Empresses and their Court Arts in the Forbidden City, Tokyo, 1997, cat. no. 54. Compare also a half-portrait of another imperial consort attributed to Castiglione, Portrait of Consort Huixian in the Palace Museum, also exhibited in Tokyo, 1997, ibid., cat. no. 61.
The portrait of Chunhui is painted in the traditional shengrong style, a formal portrait style made for ceremonial works depicting the subject in a still pose without any facial expression. Castiglione’s brushwork gives his subject a beauty and gentility befitting a high ranking court lady. She looks young and beautiful, with a sensitive expression on her face achieved by the use of the European pictorial technique of light ‘shadowing’. Castiglione captured the inner vitality of his subject, producing a Chinese style portrait with Western influence. In the portrait, Chunhui is wearing an official Manchu court robe for winter called chao fu and a first-rank imperial consort’s winter hat called chao guan. The chao guan is heavily adorned with gold, precious stones and pearls, resembling a crown. A similar chao guan is illustrated in Gary Dickinson and Linda Wrigglesworth, Imperial Wardrobe, Berkeley, 2000, pl. 152.
Cécile and Michel Beurdeley, Castiglione, Peintre Jésuit à la Cour de Chine, Fribourg, 1971.
Exhibition of Treasures from the Palace Museum, Seibu Museum of Art, Tokyo, 1988.
Yang Boda, 'Castiglione at the Qing Court', Orientations, vol. 19, no. 11 November 1988, pp. 44-51.
Zhu Jiajin, 'Castiglione's Tielu Paintings', Orientations, vol. 19, no. 11, November 1988, pp. 80-83.
Wu Hung, 'Emperor's Masquerade - Costume Portraits of Yongzheng and Qianlong', Orientations, vol. 26, no. 7, July/August 1995, pp. 25-41.
Yu Hui, 'Naturalism in Qing Imperial Group Portraiture', Orientations, vol. 26, no. 7, July/August 1995, pp. 42-50.
Shan Guoqing, 'Gentlewoman Paintings of the Qing Palace Ateliers', Orientations, vol. 26, no. 7, July/August 1995, pp. 56-59.
Empresses and their Court Arts in the Forbidden City, Sezon Museum of Art, Tokyo, 1997.
Gary Dickinson and Linda Wrigglesworth, Imperial Wardrobe, Berkeley, 2000.
Emperor Qianlong's Grand Cultural Enterprise, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2002.
The Life of Emperor Qian Long, Macao Museum of Art, Macao, 2002.
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