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Origin and authenticity of Chinese paintings?
April 19, 2005 4:40 PM   Subscribe

I've got some Chinese paintings from my late grandfather, and I'm having trouble finding more information about them. Here's what he had to say about them (image, transcript inside) and here's a scan I made of one of them (image). I don't know enough about this subject to make educated guesses, and the information from my grandfather is either inaccurate or just a dead-end. So basically, I'd like to know anything that you know about this. I'd be happy to scan more of the prints as well if someone needs additional information.

The relevant portion of my grandfather's letter:
"As is the case with the split-up of the Chinese tempura paintings (incidentally reputedly dating from the reign of Kao Tang - c.1800 to c.1820 and given to my Grandfather by a sea-captain friend of his in the clipper-ship trade) the remaining paintings and framed papers will..."

I'm guessing he means tempera painting instead of tempura, but as far as I know that was a European thing. Also, I don't see any useful references to Kao Tang online, but that may be an inaccurate romanization, or perhaps just misinformation.
posted by j.edwards to Media & Arts (6 answers total)
 
I think you want to look for collectors marks as a first step. As I understand it, a lot of Chinese work is not signed by the artist, but traditionally the collector of the work will put some sort of stamp on it.
posted by lilboo at 6:44 PM on April 19, 2005


I would (a) look for dealers in Chinese art in New York, Los Angeles, or elsewhere and send them scans and/or (b) do the same with professors at UW Seattle, or other Professors at other schools around the country. For example, you could contact someone at Harvard Yenching Institute or at the Sackler Museum at Harvard. I'm sure some art historian would be thrilled to have a look at your prints.
posted by alms at 8:23 PM on April 19, 2005


It's funny you mention tempera being a european thing - not that I know anything whatsoever about all this - but just looking at the work, those faces are nearly euro stylized aren't they? I mean, particularly the 2 outside fellows - nothing asiatic about those faces. And maybe it is 200 years old as suggested, but gee the colour is very.... bright.
Sorry, I'm not adding anything other than ignorant criticism. I don't know art but know what I like etc.
I'd follow up with the suggestion by alms.
*steps back from kb*
posted by peacay at 4:10 AM on April 20, 2005


I have seen paintings like this before, and I think they come under the general category of 'China trade paintings' (also known as 'Chinese export paintings'), i.e. paintings produced in China for sale to European sailors, merchants and visitors. That explains the peculiar fusion of Eastern and Western styles (which I personally find very appealing, though experts in Oriental art sometimes look down on it because they regard it as a 'contamination' of Chinese art by Western influence).

These two paintings (described as "Chinese export figural paintings on silk c. 1870") are the closest match I can find. If I can dig up any more information I will post it here.
posted by verstegan at 4:59 AM on April 20, 2005


Okay, here's a little more information. As far as I can judge, your paintings are pith paper watercolours, probably produced in Canton in the first half of the nineteenth century:

Pith presumably came into use for painting to satisfy the increasing demand for small, inexpensive and easily transported souvenirs, following the massive growth in the China trade in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Paintings in oils, on board and canvas were costly and difficult to carry home. Earlier and more prestigious export watercolours had often been on a larger scale and painted on fine Chinese paper or on paper imported from Europe. They may have suited the sea-captains and informed the aristocracy but for the hoi polloi they were too expensive. The albums of pith paintings were inexpensive, light, easy to pack and gave the pictures some protection on the long voyage home. Because many were sold in albums and hence protected from the light, they retain their bright colours to this day. Hanging them in strong light soon gives them that washed-out look.

Because of the nature of pith and its cellular structure, the gouache used by the Chinese sat on the surface and produced a bright and even sparkling effect. Very fine detail could be achieved, but pith did not lend itself to the flat wash of colour favoured for European watercolours. Developed to appeal to the 'foreign barbarian' visitors to China, paintings on pith were produced by artisans rather than by the intellectual elite, and they were not accepted as Chinese art. Though there is evidence in these paintings of Western influence, derived in part from the presence of European painters at the court of Emperor Qianlong, they cannot be claimed as western art.

If you want more, here is a book about them, Views from the West, described as 'an extremely useful addition to the limited literature on the subject'. The figures reproduced on the book cover are too small to make out clearly, but they seem to resemble the figures in your paintings.
posted by verstegan at 5:51 AM on April 20, 2005


If you go to the christies.com Chinese Art department then send the relevant expert a nice email, they will identify the paintings for free - they are always looking for prospective customers. Obviously check first before sending attachments. I have sought their advice on numerous occassions and even received rough valuations without ever selling anything through them.
posted by fire&wings at 8:10 AM on April 20, 2005


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