Ancestor Portraits of a Woman - part of a pair, husband and wife 祖先像(夫婦) - ROM2018_16344_16


Ancestor Portraits of a Woman - part of a pair, husband and wife 祖先像(夫婦)

Maker: Unidentified artist
Medium:Scroll, ink and colour on paper
Geography: China
Period: Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911
Ht. 100.3 x Wt. 59.7 cm
Object number: 994.195.1.2
On view
Gallery Location:

This is the female one of a paired portraits of a husband(994.195.1.1) and wife. This pair is revealing an example of painted ancestor portraits that were influenced by the photographic portrait, a genre newly emerging through the Western invention of the camera during the nineteenth century.The rendering of the sitters’ faces is exceptionally life-like, with careful shading. The faces were painted using extremely fine brushes, imitating a photographic image. We could even mistake them for photographed faces that were cut and pasted onto the painted portraits—a fashion that could occasionally be seen in the late Qing period. The painter could have painted the faces based on black-and-white photographs of the sitters. Portrait painters were in fact among the first to operate photography studios in China.1 The sitters (or their family) might have chosen to have the faces painted in the style of photography to achieve the fashionable high verisimilitude of photography, while maintaining the convention of coloured portrait painting.

Western techniques are shown not only in the three-dimensional modelling of the sitters’ faces, but also in the rendering of the chairs, which also look realistic with a convincing perspective. The rest of the elements appear relatively conventional. While there is some shading effect on the husband’s robe, the wife’s costume looks fairly flat. The clothing might not have been done by the same hand, as the making of such portraits commonly involved multiple artists in a workshop environment.

By the late Qing period, the pictorial convention of ancestor portraits had been well established. These two portraits maintain all those standardized features, including the figures’ formal postures, costumes, and furniture. Seated in typical folding armchairs against an empty background, the forebears are depicted in their formal outfits. The husband wears a Qing dynasty official hat and a chaofu (ceremonial robe) cover over a winter bufu (surcoat) with fur trim and a square insignia badge indicating his official ranking (possibly the sixth rank, which is symbolized by a white egret). His wife wears a phoenix crown and the Han Chinese-style formal ceremonial costume: an embroidered cape called xiapei with a cloud collar (yunjian), worn over a jacket embroidered with a dragon motif (mangpao) and a pleated skirt. Her insignia badge matches her husband’s. According to the woman’s costume, this couple was Han Chinese rather than Manchu. During the Manchu rule of the Qing dynasty, a Chinese official would be required to wear the Manchu-adapted version of semiformal robe, which is seen in the husband’s outfit. Yet his wife was allowed to wear her own symbol of status—that is, the Chinese ceremonial xiapei. The artists rendered both costumes in meticulously fine detail and striking colours. All in all, the portraits were meant to indicate the sitters’ great wealth and high social status.

1 Stuart and Rawski, Worshiping the Ancestors, 166.

Publication: Wen-Chien Cheng, and Yanwen Jiang. Gods in my home: Chinese ancestor portraits and popular prints (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 2019), 120-121.

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