CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

A Celebration of the Lunar New Year: Insights on Chinese and Chinese Export works at M.S. Rau

The Year of the Rabbit

Celebrate 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 Missionaries

Currently, 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.
 
Qing Dynasty Reverse Glass Painting - Large Group at Throne | M.S. Rau
 
Qing Dynasty Reverse Glass Painting - Large Group at Throne | M.S. Rau
 
The reverse glass art form is a stunning display of meticulous artistry and also a material demonstration of incredible historical cross-cultural exchange. In Chinese reverse glass works, artists painstakingly applied painted layers to the glass in reverse, with the top layer painted first and the background last. These paintings are viewed in reflected light, revealing an impressive gloss, luminosity and depth of color unattainable with other painting techniques. The compositions often depict bucolic landscapes populated with Chinese figures enjoying leisurely pursuits. Due to the complexity of the process and the high level of artistic skill that it required, highly detailed examples such as the works in our gallery are only rarely found.
 
Qing Dynasty Reverse Glass Work | M.S. Rau
 

 

Qing Dynasty Reverse Glass Work | M.S. Rau This dynamic painting features a seated woman in a garden setting, accompanied by a blue creature reminiscent of perhaps a lion or a dragon—or a hybrid of both.
 
The art of reverse glass painting came to China from Europe in the seventeenth century and was bolstered by the rise of international trading companies like the Dutch East India company and the influence of Catholic missionaries like the Jesuits. The development of the Chinese glass painting tradition can be directly linked to Chinese exposure to examples of the European art form, the burgeoning availability of high-quality glass sheets, the importation of oil-paint and Jesuit-driven production and demand for these paintings.
 

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.

 
Qing Dynasty Reverse Glass Painting | M.S. Rau
 

 

Qing Dynasty Reverse Glass Painting | M.S. Rau This intricate painting features three figures dressed in elaborately detailed textiles. The composition is bisected by a paneled roof and swirling cloud-like designs, with a peaceful landscape appearing in the distance. The figures raise large plumed peacock fans that cross each other to create graceful symmetry
 

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 Seal

Some 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.
 
Chinese Stone Foo Dog Chop Seal | M.S. Rau
 
Chinese Stone Foo Dog Chop Seal | M.S. Rau
 

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.

 

Chinese Export Silver

Beginning in the 18th century, many silver workshops in China specialized in the manufacture of silver export pieces for Western audiences. Typically bearing motifs that were popular amongst Europeans such as dragons, bamboo and floral patterns, these charming pieces were all beautifully handcrafted with the utmost skill.
 
Chinese Export Silver Bowl and Spoon | M.S. Rau
 
Chinese Export Silver Bowl and Spoon | M.S. Rau
 
This delightful and extremely rare spoon and bowl pair exemplifies the remarkable artistry of Chinese export silver. The bowl boasts a fluid, undulating rim exquisitely engraved to depict bamboo, a motif which continues throughout the bowls body. Accompanying the bowl is a matching silver spoon, its handle intricately modeled as a vine with floral buds climbing upwards to its bowl, which seems to bloom with lovely applied buds and flowers. The spoon features the mark of Wing Fat, a firm active in Hong Kong from 1875-1930 and Sing Fat, active in Canton & Shanghai from 1880-1930.
 

Celebrating Jade

Jade has been known in China as the “royal gem” since as early as 3000 B.C.E. Its value comparable with that of gold and diamonds in the West, jade was used not only for the finest objects and cult figures but also in grave furnishings for high-ranking members of the Imperial family. A significant part of China’s spiritual and cultural development for centuries, jade is associated with merit, morality and dignity.
 
Celadon Jade Dragon Covered Bowl | M.S. Rau
 
Celadon Jade Dragon Covered Bowl | M.S. Rau
 
A pair of dragons serve as the handles of this exceptional Chinese covered bowl. The intricate piece is crafted from a rare type of pale green jade known as "celadon" jade. This nearly translucent material is carved to beautiful effect in the present piece. Standing atop an equally intricate carved wood base, it is a stunning example of the artistry of jade sculpture.
 

Happy Lunar New Year!

Whether celebrating the Year of the Rabbit in China, or the Year of the Cat in Vietnam or ringing in the new year in the United States or beyond, celebrations of Lunar New Year serve as a wonderful reminder of the reach of the Asian diaspora and the indelible influence of Asian cultures in all corners of the world. These items in M.S. Rau’s collection celebrate the enduring beauty of Chinese art and illustrate a history of cross-cultural exchange. Cheers to a peaceful and prosperous year!

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