Chinese reverse glass paintings feature at Chiswick Asian sale

lot 121

Lot 121 An 18th century Chinese reverse glass painting of a beauty for sale at Chiswick Auctions May 16 2016

There are a couple of Chinese reverse glass paintings coming up for sale at Chiswick Auctions on May 16: one of these is particulalry interesting and is classifed as being that of a Chinese ‘beauty’ and referenced to the work of court painter to the Qianlong Emperor, Guiseppe Castiglione, and Bertholet’s book Concubines and Courtesans: Women in Chinese Erotic Art.

The auctioneer supplements the printed catalogue entry for the work (no. 121) with an interesting explanation. ‘Reverse glass paintings occupy a special position within Chinese art, crossing over the genres of Chinese export art, glass working, the painting genre of meirenhua (paintings of beauties) and erotic art. Generally associated with English country house collections throughought the 18th century and later, when their vibrant colours and exotic flavour made them the hight of fashionable sophistication and, indeed, both lots 120 and 121 were almost certainly produced for the export market. Lot 120 follows a European original [it depicts the Maddonna and child together with John the Baptist and is painted after a European engraving] which would have been reversed and meticulously painted in oils onto the glass by use of a Chinese brush by artists working in and around Guangzhou to serve the Southern Chinese ports and the [associated] export market.

‘However, since the point of its inception within China, reverse painting was very much an Imperial concern, with Chinese rulers themselves appreciating their exotic foreign characteristics. Huc (1858) mentions that Castiglione learned to paint in oils on glass in Le Christianisme en Chine, en Tartarie and Au Tibet. Amiot (1786) notes that the Qianlong Emperor commissioned Castiglione to paint large mirrors in Memoires concernant l’histoire, les sciences, les arts, les moeurs, les usages, etc. des Chinois, Vol.2.

‘Beurdely’s 1971 catalog raisonne of Guiseppe Castiglione does not include any examples of reverse glass painting. However, one painting in oils, plate 85, a portrait of a young woman dressed as a European Shepherdess, bears close compositional similarities to works on glass . . .  listed as being in the Imperial Palace Collection. . . the oil, said to depict the Qianlong Emperor’s favorite concubine, Rong Fei, presents a Chinese lady seated in a relaxed pose in loose flowing robes and staring directly at the viewer, all features shared with the beauty depicted in Lot 121. The erotic undertones of both paintings, explain why the latter painting was selected by Bertholet for inclusion with his book on the subject [Concubines and Courtesans: Women in Chineses Erotic Art]. The piece also fits into a wider category of beauty paintings which has experienced an expansion of academic attention led by James Cahill (2010) and the recent exhibition, Beauty Revealed (2013). Neither, however, addressed reversed glass paintings despite its contribution to the genre. Whilst primarily an export art, its Imperial patronage, technical sophistication and Chinese aesthetics demand that it receive closer academic attention within the canon of Chinese painting art.’