DESCRIPTION: A large, boldly colored Chinese ancestor portrait featuring seven generations of mandarins and their wives. Such paintings were commissioned by descendants, and this one is executed in classic ancestral portrait style with the unsmiling subjects facing directly forward and seated on chairs with rounded backs, the men with hands and shoes showing and the women with their robes completely covering hands and feet.
A mandarin was a highly educated civil official who had passed a series of rigorous examinations to attain his post. Not only was a mandarin knowledgeable in the duties of his office but he was also accomplished in the arts of music, poetry, calligraphy, and painting. In this painting, several of the men display their long, pointed fingernails, reminding the viewer that their occupation was intellectual rather than physical, and their elaborate robes identify their standing as scholars and government officials. Likewise, the women’s heads are adorned with elaborate embroidered caps and dangling pearl ornaments.
CONDITION: Probably dating from the early to mid 19th C., this colored ink on rice paper scroll has been remounted; the top 2/3’s area is in good condition, the bottom third has touchups and light wrinkling. DIMENSIONS: Painting: 59” high (1.5 m) x 35” wide (89 cm); Whole Scroll: 80 1/2” high (2.05 m) x 38 ½” wide (97.8 cm).
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: Confucian teachings dictated the importance of honoring one’s ancestors. After someone's death, the family of the deceased often commissioned an ancestor portrait conveying the accomplishments and status of the ancestor in Chinese society. These were then displayed at a family shrine or altar within the home where descendants burned incense, placed food offerings, and kowtowed to the image. Veneration of ancestors, an important part of Chinese life, centered on such portraits and were believed to facilitate the family's ability to communicate with the spirits of their predecessors. All ancestors were painted with virtually the same expression - a symbolically somber and detached look- to suggest otherworldly status. Yet great care is taken in the portraits to record the deceased’s face realistically; capturing the likeness was crucial for the portrait to be able to function as a ritual object. It was said that if even one hair in the depiction was "wrong," all future prayers would go to someone else’s ancestor, resulting in family tragedy. The power of the living person was believed to reside in their portrait after death.
Most of the ancestor portraits that have survived depict members of the Qing imperial families or military and civil elite who ruled China from 1644 until the revolution of 1911. These bold, almost graphic-art quality paintings, are much in demand today making stunning focal points in interiors ranging from traditional to very contemporary.