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each of low square form with indented corners, each cover delicately enamelled with European figures, one cover painted with two ladies sharing an orange at a pink-curtained window, the lady informally dressed in a gathered white frock with blue bodice looking back to the lady in pink holding two halves of an orange, the other cover similarly detailed with a lady in yellow tunic with blue sash, pushing aside a purple curtain to peer out of a window, with a young boy at her side grasping an orange pumpkin, the vignettes encircled by a multicolour meander with mixed flowers including morning glory, peony and narcissus, all borne on leafy foliage on a soft brown ground, the narrow sides of each box with a cloisonné floral border, the underside incised with a four-character reign mark within double squares
Two Charming 'Western' Treasures
The maker of these two exquisite boxes must have intended the ironic self-reference in his painting of two young maidens absorbed in the opening a delicate gilded box and has produced two charming treasures that undoubtedly received the same admiration as that seen on the faces of the ladies he painted. The present pair of boxes, possibly the property of a court lady or a female member of the Imperial family or perhaps made as a curio for the emperor's enjoyment, exudes femininity with its elegant slender square form with rounded corners, delicate painting of Western ladies on one and a mother and child on the other, both scenes encased by a rich floral design against a soft golden brown ground.
The exceptional quality of the painting of these boxes is a testament to the high level of artistry achieved by court artists trained by the Jesuit missionaries who introduced the technique of enamelling on metal to the Palace Workshop in the Forbidden City. The painting style and colour palette used is comparable to that found on many of the Palace Workshop pieces decorated with European subject matters. Qianlong Emperor's fondness and fascination with European paintings and artefacts is well documented and evident from wares that bear similar romanticised vignettes of ladies and children. Both the theme and painting technique employed are Western. The manner in which light and shade are in sharp contrast, along with distinctive flesh tones and naturalistic modelling for facial features are all characteristic of Western painting. The colours used are bold and vivid, very different from the delicate water washes of traditional Chinese ink work. The result is flamboyant, luxurious and decorative – aspects much favoured by Qianlong himself.
Amongst Western subject matters, the 'mother and child' motif can be found on a number of pieces from the Qing Court collection, suggesting that it was popular with the Qianlong emperor. It is a subject matter that is not indigenous to Chinese art and was introduced by the Jesuit artists who in turn would have been influenced by the rococo taste of France under Louis XV where painters like Boucher, Fragonard and Lancret were held in high esteem. However, this theme was confidently adapted into the Chinese artist's repertoire, although interestingly, scenes depicting a 'Chinese mother and child' satisfied conventional Chinese taste and came to be used as decoration; for example see a painted enamel loop-handled jar decorated with a Chinese mother holding a fan and playing with a small boy in a rococo-style panel illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Metal-bodied Enamel Ware, Hong Kong, 2002, pl. 212; and a brushpot also painted with a related scene, ibid.,pl. 222. The 'mother and child' theme also appeared concurrently on enamelled glass and porcelain. See a glass brushpot decorated with a European mother and child in panels, from the Ezekiel collection, included in the exhibition The Arts of the Ch'ing Dynasty, T.O.C.S., 1963-64, vol. 35, no. 251; and a porcelain vase in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, illustrated in Hugh Moss, By Imperial Command, Hong Kong, 1976, pl. 73. See further three vases with related decoration , in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the exhibition Qingdai hua falang tezhan, Taipei, 1979, cat. nos. 76, 80 and 71.
The present boxes are comparable to only one other pair of oval form boxes sold in these rooms, 20th November 1984, lots 508 and 509, and now in the Uldry collection illustrated in Helmut Brinker and A. Lutz, Chinese Cloisonne: The Pierre Uldry Collection, New York, 1989, pl. 288 (fig. 1). Although the Uldry boxes differ in shape, they are made in a similar manner with thick gilded rims and the covers superbly painted with a vignette enclosing a European scene, one of two fair-haired maidens resting in a field with a child, and the other depicting a richly dressed European gentleman drinking at a table with a lady. The Uldry boxes are decorated around the shallow vertical sides with confronted dragons in cloisonné enamel as opposed to the florette meander seen on these two vessels.
The painting style and colour palette of the main decoration as well as the floral-ground on this pair of boxes is closely related to that seen on a cloisonné and painted enamel covered jar decorated with European figures in landscape, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, published in Enamel Ware in the Ming and Ch'ing Dynasties, Taipei, 1999, pl. 38; and on a small hu-form vase sold in our New York rooms, 29th November 1993, lot 101, and twice again in these rooms, 30th October 2002, lot 205, and 9th October 2007, lot 1540. Compare also a set of cup, cover and saucer sold in our London rooms, 15th December 1970, lot 25; and another cup and cover decorated with European style pastoral scenes in reserve included in Michael Gillingham, Chinese Painted Enamels, Oxford, 1978, pl. 119.
The attraction of Western subject matter for the Qianlong emperor is closely linked to one of the grandest and most ambitious architectural projects commissioned by him – the expansion of the original Yuanming Yuan outside Beijing, also known as the Old Summer Palace. When this expansion was completed, the Yuanming Yuan comprised thousands of magnificently furnished residential halls and offices divided into five complexes and garden areas that occupied over eight hundred and sixty-five acres of land. One of the five complexes was the European style palace buildings built to satisfy the emperor's lavish taste for the exotic as well as his desire to be seen as the universal ruler. This highly innovative palace complex, designed by the Italian Jesuit artist working at the Qing court, Giuseppe Castiglione, was constructed between 1747 and 1759 and comprised buildings in the Baroque style, formal French-style gardens and European fountains which the emperor had seen on Western paintings. The buildings were filled with Western-style furnishing, decoration and with the emperor's vast curio collection which included paintings, clocks, mechanical devices, mirrors, telescopes, globes and other European tribute items. It is most likely that much of the enamel vessels decorated with European subject matters were made to be housed in the European Palace compound where they afforded Qianlong, who was imbued with a universal vision of his imperial power a 'window on Europe'. Therefore, the present pair of boxes may be appreciated for their beauty and fine craftsmanship, but more importantly for their role in China's imperial history.
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