The Peabody Essex Museum shows significant Chinese art Part 3

We have written over the past couple of weeks about the splendid and quite unique collection of Chinese art to be found within The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachussetts (USA).  Amongst the collections held there is a quite breathtaking series of gouache paintings vividly illustrating the vigorous ongoing trade between foreign countries and the traders of Canton (Guangdong) during the 1820s.

16 images for joss houses 1825 guangzhou

This image is captioned as ‘images for joss stick sellers’. It appears to depict a shop selling Buddhistic and other devotional figures associated with the burning of joss sticks and incense in a devotional situation at the temple or at a personal shrine. Ca. 1820-5, Canton, gouache on paper. Courtesy The Peabody Essex Museum.

These are unique not just as a collection but also because of their freshness and crispness, unaffected by the passage of almost two hundred years. They would have been executed for the export market and are not unique in themsleves. What is, however, very special is the fact that they have been so well preserved as a collection.

16 metal articles Peabody Essex gouache on paper

Metalware store in Canton, ca. 1820-5. This image painted in gouache seems to include many items made in the archaic style (copies of ancient artifacts from early dynasties). Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachussetts.

16 porcelain shop 1820 Guangzhou

Chinese porcelain shop, Canton, ca. 1820-5. Note the porcelain garden seats depicted (bottom left) and which are clearly destined for the export market. There are vases of various forms which would be contemporaneous in origin and certainly not antique items. The vases would probably have been manufactured in nearby Jingdezhen. Gouache on paper, ca. 1820-5. Courtesy The Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachussetts.

The Peabody Essex Museum shows significant Chinese art Part 2

18 chinese house peabody essex museum

The Yin Yu Tang Chinese house at The Peabody Essex Museum, Salem Massachussetts. Photo by Rickinmar, via Tumblr

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), a prosperous merchant named Huang built a stately sxteen-bedroomed home in China’s southeastern Huizhou region, calling his home Yin Yu Tang. This Chinese name implies the desire to create a home to shelter generations of descendants. In 1982, though, the last descendant left the village and it has now been removed, piece by piece, to the unlikely location of Salem, Massachussetts as a result of tha city’s close historic links with the China trade.

Originally, the home was oriented in the village according to well established principles of feng shui, to ensure a harmonious relationship with the landscape and it was constructed according to local traditions of building and local customs. Coins were placed under structural columns to bring prosperity to the home and its occupiers. The first floor bedrooms have intricately carved lattice windows that look out onto two fish pools in a central courtyard. Lots of small details in the building inform the viewer about the aspirations, identity and creative expression of the Huang family, as well as simply telling us about architectural style. There is a magnificent accumulation of furnishings which, again, tell us about things as varied as global trade and connections between China and America, finely developed personal taste and historical preferences.

Yin Yu Tang house Peabody Essex Museum

The Peabody Essex Museum displays significant Chinese art Part 1

17 peabody essex museum

Not only is The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachussetts (USA) possibly the oldest continuously operating museum in the United States, but it also has one of the best collections of Chinese artifacts anywhere in the world. Its holdings in total are some 1.3m. pieces. The present museum had its origins in the East India Marine Society (1799), founded by a Salem-based group of sea captains in the Eastern trade, and it inherited its collection of Far Eastern objets. Its collection wa merged with those of the former Peabody Museum of Salem and the Essex Institute which bnrought about the current curious-sounding nomenclature.

One extraordinary aspect of the Museum’s collection is its acquisition of complete historic houses and contents: it has set these, some 24 in total, in its own grounds, transplanted from their original sites. One of these houses is the home of the Chinese Huang family, a stately six-bedroom house from China’s south eastern Huizhou region known as Yin Yu Tang (we shall write about this remarkable preservation in the coming weeks).

Below we illustrate some of the outstanding exhibits within the Museum.


Detail of a large punch bowl made in China and given to the Salem merchant Elias Hasket Derby in 1786. The Derby ship Grand Turk was only the third American ship to trade with China. In 1801 the punch bowl was presented to the East India Marine Society, which became the PeabodyEssex Museum where it is still on display today. Photo by Rickinmar, via


A blue and white Chinese export platter, date about 1740 and with a view of the 16th century English residence Burleigh House. From thecollection of The Peabody Essex Museum Photo by Rickinmar, via


Detail from a gouache painting of trade in Cantonese waters during the first half of the 19th century. The picture well captures the vigorous, breathless nature of the trade which took place with Europe and the US at that time. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachussetts.