Historical Portraits Picture Archive

A European lady, wearing traditional Chinese dress, red robes and beaded headdress, a fan in her hand c.1770

 English School 

A European lady, wearing traditional Chinese dress, red robes and beaded headdress, a fan in her hand,  English School
Watercolour on ivory
18th Century
Oval, 50mm (2in) high
This rare portrayal of a European female sitter in Chinese dress was probably painted by an English artist working in China. Examples of European women wearing Chinese dress can be found painted by both Chinese and European artists; respectively the best known examples being a reverse glass painting of Miss and Mrs. Revell [circa 1780, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts AE85763] and Tilly Kettle’s portrait of Mrs. Yates as Mandane in ‘The Orphan of China’ [1765, Tate, London T03373].

European-style oil painting was introduced to into China during the seventeenth century and by the 18th century secular oil portraits had become part of an ‘imperial tradition’.[1] The artist of this portrait demonstrates an awareness of the European portrait miniature, using ivory as a support for watercolour painting. Both men and women occasionally dressed in Chinese costume for entertainment, although the Peabody Essex museum example confirms that European women living in China adopted Chinese dress.[2] The somewhat amateur nature of this portrait is perhaps an indication of how few professional European portrait miniature artists could be found in China during the eighteenth century, although a few did attempt to gain commissions there.

The style and flattened perspective of this portrait reflect that of Chinese traditional reverse glass painting. Although the artist is at present unknown, it is probable that they were aware of this art form. The artist also reflects an acquaintance with traditional Chinese painting known as meiren hua (‘painting of a beauty’), in which delicate women, often courtesans, were presented in relaxed and informal poses, their hands painted loosened and elongated. The lifted hand is also a gesture frequently found in eighteenth century European portraits.

The combination of style and technique shown in this miniature represents something of a unique combination of Chinese and European culture in portrait painting.

1. In the nineteenth century, Chinese artists such as Lam Qua (1801-1860), would train under Western artists (in Lam Qua’s case, George Chinnery) and combine Chinese taste with European aesthetics.
2. ‘Mrs.’ and ‘Miss.’ Revell were the wife and daughter of Henry Revell (1713-1780), recorded as living in Canton from 1757. He was chief of council, eventually becoming Chief Supercargo of the East India Company.
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