The Year of the RabbitCelebrate the Year of the Rabbit when the Lunar New Year kicks off on January 22! Also referred to as Chinese New Year, the Lunar New Year heralds new beginnings and renewals of happiness, health, prosperity and good fortune. Each year, one of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals names the new year on the lunar calendar (other Asian countries follow their own lunar zodiacs, with Vietnam, for example, celebrating the cat this year). This year’s Chinese emblem, the Rabbit, is considered one of the luckiest Chinese zodiac signs and is thought to usher in peace and longevity. The Lunar New Year is one of biggest celebrations in Asia and in the Asian diaspora. One of the most interesting ways to visualize the Asian diaspora is through cultural objects and works of art that carry a globalized provenance and transcend time and space. Learning more about these works helps trace the far reach of the Asian diaspora and sheds light on how the artistic languages of Asian countries are celebrated and emulated across the globe. We are delighted to observe the celebrations of the Lunar New Year through exploring a selection of our Chinese and Chinese export artworks and objects here at M.S. Rau.
Qing Dynasty Reverse Glass Works and The Jesuit MissionariesCurrently, our gallery houses a beautiful selection of Qing Dynasty Reverse Glass works dating to the late 18th and early 19th century. In each of these detailed and unique compositions, glass takes the place of canvas to portray different subjects and narrative scenes. The below work, for example, features a large group of people surrounding the throne of an emperor figure who is attended to by pages as others worship at his feet. Each of the figures wears elaborately detailed robes and colorful textiles.
The first European reverse paintings on glass arrived in China in the early seventeenth century as gifts and presents from European delegations, providing the earliest exposure to the art form to the Chinese population. After learning of this art form, Chinese artists needed specific materials to create these works—glass and oil paint. A Dutch East India trading company contract dated from 1608 suggests that flat glass and mirrors, probably from Venice, were already exported to southeast China in the early seventeenth century. These reverse paintings on glass also utilized oil-based paints, a sharp departure from the locally dominant ink-based pigments utilized in traditional Chinese art. Soon, local artists adopted the new mediums, trading xuan paper and ink to experiment with glass and oil paint. By 1699, craftsmen in Canton (present day Guangzhou) acquired the technological knowledge to produce high-quality flat glass and began producing their own panels, spurring a production of high-quality reverse glass paintings in the city throughout the 18th century.
Later in the century, when Jesuit missionaries arrived in China, they admired the expert proficiency and masterful skills of the Chinese reverse glass artists, noting that their paintings in reverse glass far exceeded the quality of their Western counterparts. The Jesuits were known for co-opting native art forms to create hybrid religious artworks that borrowed from European and localized native aesthetics. They would use these hybrid religious works as conversion tools to propagate Christianity — telling the stories of the Christian religion through pieces that were aesthetically familiar to native populations. Jesuits also utilized these hybrid works for trade, bringing “exotic” art, often called Krishitan or Nanban art, from their missionary footholds in China, Japan, and Goa back to Europe—quickly growing the European demand for rarities of the “Orient.” Chinese reverse glass artists were already one step ahead, creating decidedly Chinese compositions in a traditionally European medium.
Thus, spurred by the Jesuit missionary project and fueled by general international trade, reverse glass works became highly desirable export items. The Jesuits’ carefully kept records also reveal that paintings of this type were not only prized possessions of wealthy European families in the 18th century, but also of the Imperial Court. Jesuit missionary Jean Joseph Marie Amiot recounted that several reverse glass works created in Canton (Guangzhou) were sent to the Forbidden City in Beijing and that the Emperor even summoned Cantonese artists to Beijing to produce more reverse glass works. These beautiful and unique works, with their exquisite details and mirror-like sheen captured the eye of collectors across the world and were a coveted signifier of worldly prestige throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries.
With growing political upheavals and wars, the exchange of these reverse glass works slowly ceased, and many of these paintings have disappeared from public domain—making surviving examples a rare and treasured reminder of this unique history. Several of these paintings exported before 1851 have been preserved in the temples of Bangkok, and other historical reverse glass paintings reside at the Forbidden City Emperor’s palace in Beijing. The exquisite reverse glass paintings held in our collection at M.S. Rau are a stunning achievement in artistry and also an amazing relic of international luxury trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Foo Dog Carved Chop SealSome objects held in our collection display the unique and thoughtful artistry inscribed in many facets of Chinese culture, including items that some Western cultures might consider mundane instruments of everyday life. Chinese seals, also known as chops, have been used since the Shing dynasty (1600 - 1046 B.C.E) as an official form of the signature on everything from official documents to works of art. Considered beautiful objets d’art in their own right in addition to being functional tools, seals are often expertly carved from luxury material and surmounted by meticulously rendered figures.
This shoushan stone seal is surmounted by a beautifully carved foo dog, the traditional Chinese guardian figure and sacred protector. The foo dog was also thought to be the protector of truth in Buddhism—an apt symbol atop an official seal such as this. The shoushan stone rectangular base is incised by both Chinese characters and a delicately rendered landscape. A chop seal achieving this degree of artistry would certainly have served as a symbol of both status and wealth, and likely would have been intended for a person of great stature. The bottom of this seal, however, remains uncut, suggesting it never reached its intended owner.