Mysterious Portrait of a Chinese Lady
The present portrait is striking for the manner in which a typical Chinese beauty has been represented. While few female subjects in the Chinese painting repertoire of the Qing dynasty can be found, the present piece belongs to a small group of paintings all showing a young woman with pale white complexion and rosy cheeks, characteristic of elegant and leisured ladies of her day. Three other paintings in this group are known; one in the collection of the Hong Kong Museum of Art included on the museum's website; one from the collection of Madame Chiang Kai-shek and attributed to the work of Jesuit missionary artist Giuseppe Castiglione, published in Cecile and Michel Beurdeley, Giuseppe Castiglione: A Jesuit Painter at the Court of the Chinese Emperors, Fribourg, 1971, cat. no. 83; and one, also in the style of Castiglione, sold in our New York rooms, 23rd March 2011, lot 634 (fig. 0). Madame Chiang Kai-shek's painting is said to have been commissioned by the Qianlong emperor as a tribute to his favourite consort. This has inspired theories as to the identity of the sitter, with some suggesting that the painting is of the emperor's favourite concubine Rong Fei, also known as the 'Fragrant Consort'. Historically, Rong Fei, a Muslim of Uighur descent from the oasis city of Kashgar in Xinjiang province, entered Qianlong's court in 1760 as the sixth-ranked guiren or honoured person. She lived in the Imperial Palace until her death in 1788, by which time she was promoted to the fourth rank of fei or consort. According to legends her beauty was unsurpassed, but it was her body's natural scent that captivated the emperor, hence being named the 'Fragrant Consort'.
While portraits in this group depict four ladies with different facial features, they are all shown seated in the same pose - slightly leaning towards a table with one arm casually resting on it and the other placed in the lap. They are elegantly dressed in a sumptuously embroidered silk robe and are adorned with precious jade and gold jewellery, all of which complement and accentuate their beauty. However, what is most striking is their direct gaze at the viewer which evokes a sense of wealth and power.
Although the present painting is not signed, two paintings mentioned above from this group have been attributed to the work of Jesuit missionary artist Giuseppe Castiglione. Jesuit-style influence in the paintings is apparent in the careful shading of the women's faces. The artist has made considerable use of highlights to sculpt the nose and cheeks. This sharply differs from that seen on works painted in the traditional Chinese method; for example see the face of Qianlong's concubine on a court painting titled Portraits of Emperor Qianlong and His Concubine in Ancient Costume published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, pl. 45. The impact of Western figurative painting is further evident from the striking use of light and shadow on the folds of the robe, and in the informality of their poses. All four portraits boast a certain element of foreign exoticism which was the fashion of the day and would have spoken well of the ladies' position in society.
The majority of Qing portraits were painted in workshops known as maitaigong (purchased visage) which implies the commercial nature of their production. Several artists collaborated within the workshop to produce a portrait between them. First the body was painted and a blank space left for the head which was then filled in by another artist. A third artist may have been involved in drawing the hands, props and finishing the background. This 'joint venture' practice was ideal in producing compositions in a rapid succession or, if necessary, with delay between the different stages. It also allowed for unity in style which is evident from the four paintings of the beauties. Hence, when a commission was received it was often the case that only the face needed filling in allowing a prompt completion of the project. The artist specializing in faces was inevitably the master in the workshop. Another interesting aspect is how identical props were used on different paintings: the same table was employed in all four portraits. This strongly suggests that they were the work of the same workshop. Shared features were the trademark style associated with a certain workshop. In fact, if a customer liked a specific 'look' he could find a workshop that specialized in or had a certain repertoire for which it was famous.
Maitaigong produced a broad range of portraits which included images of living people, historical figures and ancestors. The tradition of painting an idealized, alluring beauty was already established in the early Qing; for example see the painting Beauty Holding an Orchid in the collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, illustrated in Jan Stuart and Evelyn S. Rawski, Worshipping the Ancestors, Washington D.C. , 2001, pl. 4.2 While an English label on the Sackler painting identifies the sitter as Lady Liu, Yongzheng Emperor's concubine, according to the authors this should not be given much weight. The woman is shown wearing a Han Chinese dress and is represented as a generic 'beauty' holding an orchid flower which she is about to pin in her hair. Notes on the work suggest that she 'advertises her sexual allure and her direct eye contact with the viewer seems intended to elicit male fantasies and demonstrates the degree to which frontal portraiture had become normative.' (Ibid., p. 97) It is further suggested that the Sackler portrait, which is attributed to the mid-18th to 19th century, is similar to a number of paintings of women that were created for the pleasure of the Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors and may have a palace provenance. Alternatively, it may have been circulated among a male clientele in the city's pleasure quarters.
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