On Tuesday morning 30 November 2016 researcher Rosalien van der Poel organised a special viewing of the collection of Chinese export paintings in the depot of Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, just hours before her public PhD defense on the topic. We were with a group of 11 international experts, who had all travelled to Leiden to participate in the symposium on Chinese export paintings held at the museum the day before, and to be part of Van der Poel’s reading committee at her defense later in the afternoon.
There was a great variety of works to be seen; oil paintings, back-painted glass, single sheets and albums of watercolours and gouaches on both paper and pith ‘paper’ (a thin sheet taken from the pith of a plant). Up to that point we had only seen these paintings in Van der Poel’s book and PowerPoints, and we were all impressed with the large size of many of the oil and glass paintings and the amount of detail with which they had been executed, which could only really be appreciated when viewed up close. It was also surprising to see some of the same scenes executed both in oil paint and in back-painted glass. The latter was a special technique by which the artist applied the details first and piled on the layers of background subsequently.
Many of the works on view were from the collection of Jean Theodore Royer (1737-1807). Seeing the variety of the types of Chinese export art that he had assembled throughout his life gives a good idea of what was available at this point in time. Besides being a lawyer, Royer was a proto-sinologist who was trying to learn the Chinese language. He was aided by Carolus Wang, a Chinese Christian trained in Naples who translated many of the inscriptions alongside depictions of vocations and ethnic minorities in the albums into Latin.
Beside vocations there were also drawings of ships, flora and fauna as well as outdoor scenes. Winnie Wong (University of California, Berkeley) and May Bo Ching (City University of Hong Kong) translated the inscriptions on some of the paintings. Leonard Blussé (Leiden University) identified the different ships; where they came from and whether they were used for warfare or trade.
Conservator Pauline Marchand pointed out how the works look the same as European paintings, but in fact were made using different techniques. The Chinese applied very thin layers paint onto a cotton canvas – as opposed to linen – which was often prepared with a sheet of paper. There was a discussion as to whether the Chinese discovered glass painting before they discovered oil painting. It is said that the technique was brought by Jesuits in 1740 but the earliest known glass painting (in a Swedish collection) dates to the 1730s.
We have yet to discover whether they adopted the technique from the Europeans or figured it out themselves. Winnie Wong pointed out that in contemporary Chinese oil painting artists seem to learn from the market; by imitating examples, rather than learning from a teacher. Marchand, on the other hand, argued that to successfully work with these new materials someone must have instructed them. We concluded that at this point we have as much evidence for direct transfer as we have lack thereof; and thus we need to keep both options open awaiting future research.
Upon seeing the dark oil paintings, some suggested that maybe these were night scenes. But on the contrary, these should be bright scenes depicting hunts and other activities in broad daylight but they have been obscured by layers upon layers of dirt that piled up over the centuries. The objects have never been cleaned because they were neglected as pieces of art, something which Van der Poel’s book sets out to change. She hopes to raise funds in order to set up a conservation project so that the restored paintings can be viewed and appreciated through displays in the museum.
Willemijn van Noord, University of Amsterdam