These extremely fine Chinese commemorative portraits, commonly referred to as ancestor paintings, were painted specifically for use in ancestral worship since it was assumed that the power of the living person resided in their portrait after death. In Imperial China and, as part of their sacred family duty to care for the spirits of their deceased ancestors, sons of all classes, paid homage to their ancestors in ritual ceremonies in which they placed food offerings before the portraits.
The majority of surviving ancestor portraits depict members of the Qing Imperial families and military and civil elite who ruled China from up until the revolution of of which the present pair are extremely fine examples from the late nineteenth century.
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As here the husband and wife, who sit for their portrait were almost always depicted nearly live-size in a frontal pose, usually seated in an elaborately carved chair draped in fur or as here in brocade. Likewise all of the ancestors wore semiformal winter gowns decorated with elaborate insignia that announced their rank or princely status. Here we see a peacock, symbol of beauty and dignity and the emblem of a scholarly official of the third rank. These remarkable examples are made even more rare since with the introduction of photography during the nineteenth century, the painting of ancestor portraits began to diminish.
However, although people then tended to be photographed rather than painted, today such photographic portraits continue to hold a central place within the Chinese tradition of ancestral worship.
A massive Kou Family seven-generation northern Chinese ancestor portrait painted in colorful gouache on a hemp-like canvas. For a similar large size silk painting though more slender in width dimension of a multi-generational ancestor portrait, see Christie's, New York, 20 March , Lot were it is noted that such paintings of large numbers of family members was unusual. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, , pp.
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The reference to Shanxi is an interesting one here, as the ink painting of Xiang Cheng depicted in the upper portion is in the neighboring province of Henan, heavily suggesting a northern provenance for this painting. Other hints listed below further conform this hypothesis.
Sadly there is no place for the depiction of the daughters within the family. There is also a diminution in size of each generation and interestingly the dress code begins to show increasing western influence as we move to the more recent generations depicted.
Chinese ancestor portraits what they are worth
Between these rows can be seen a woven blue wool carpet, an ink painting of typical vertical format depicting a temple and trees in a mountainous landscape with a waterfall, inscribed Xiang Cheng ? Xiang Cheng is a city in Henan Province and the obscured last two characters may refer to the misty mountains.
Further down the ancestor portrait, below a large green incense burner, another ink painting, slightly smaller in size, is depicted and it is perhaps, the singularly most interesting feature of the entire portrait from a Western perspective.
Related Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits
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