Saturday, January 7, 2012

Family Matters, Family Portraits

Portraits are powerful.  They capture a moment in our lives and affect our memories of it forever.  Like stories we hear again and again, portraits of loved ones and ancestors remain our reality long after these people have aged and left us.
My godmother about the time of her 11th birthday
Portraits are deceptive.  They enable us to influence how others perceive us.  We present the person, the family, the image we want the world to know.  Do you remember School Picture Day?  We donned our best outfits and our best behavior.  It was so stressful and exciting for me because I knew that annual photo would be shared with everyone of importance in my life.
Walter's grandmother at 16 or 17.
Photos like this one were probably sent "home" to relatives in her native Sweden.
Portraits are precious.  People routinely list family photos among their most prized possessions.  Over time, portraits become surrogates for the subjects themselves.  During the War of 1812, Dolley Madison famously rescued the portrait of George Washington from a burning White House, because she understood what it represented to the young United States and our enemies.  The portrait, its subject, the office of President and the success of a nation were all one.  Seizure or destruction was intolerable.

Family Matters: Portraits from the Qing Court is currently on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.  The small exhibit includes 16, almost-life-size paintings of royalty, both men and women, from the Qing Dynasty.

The Qing Dynasty marks Manchu rule of China from 1644 until the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 and the founding of the Republic of China.  The Manchu people were considered foreigners, even invaders, in China proper when they consolidated northeastern tribes and overthrew Ming leaders.  Once firmly established (in about 1660), Qing rulers were incredible diplomats.  They gained great popularity by adopting existing Han Chinese culture and court customs and also fostering traditions of minority populations like themselves.  By the 18th century, the Manchus had built the largest empire… physically, ethnically and religiously… in Chinese history.
Portrait of Imperial Bodyguard Zhanyinbao, about 1760, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Art, literature and scholarship flourished.  Cities grew and wealth expanded beyond the ruling class.  Ingenuity and invention were valued.  And Qing emperors promoted the study of both science and history.  The Qing Court included European Jesuits who hoped to convert leaders to Christianity.  Of course, they did not succeed.  But they did share their knowledge of astronomy, artillery, map and clock making and Western music and painting techniques.  European artists living in China also learned traditional brush and ink painting.
Early multiculturalism: traditional Tibetan thangka
with Chinese Qianlong Emperor as Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom,
partially painted by Italian artist Giuseppe Castiglione,
mid-18th century, from the Alfred M. Sackler Gallery collection
The portraits in Family Matters are primarily from the early to mid-18th century and embody the height of Court patronage and cross-cultural exchange.  Based on traditional ancestor portraits, these paintings depict emperors and their wives, princes and princesses, as monuments, immovable and divine.  Details of ceremonial dress and palatial settings are stunningly executed.  But the paintings, softly, slyly, incorporate Western innovations: the use of oil paint, linear perspective and shadowing to emulate three-dimensionality and lend realism.
Portrait of Noblewoman from Family Matters: Portraits from the Qing Court
They also seem to be incredibly modern and personal, as if we are catching a glimpse of private moments in royal life.  Personal belongings or hints of a favorite past-time add individuality to these images.  But in fact, in the case of females, these are not literal portrayals of the sitter.  Royal women essentially lived cloistered lives seen only by an elite group at Court, which did not include Court painters.

In the West, images of kings and emperors have been commonplace for millennia.  Think of coins and public statues.  Full of symbolism and displays of wealth or talent, Western portraits were usually available to a wide audience in order to reinforce a leader’s strength and power.
Copy of the Holbein Portrait of Henry VIII at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool
The original was destroyed in a 1698 fire at the Palace of Whitehall.
But pictures of Chinese rulers, even male ones, were protected from everyday display and ownership until the 20th century.  Lovely Qing portraits were originally reserved for rituals of ancestor worship and, like the Emperor himself, were viewed by only a select few at Court.
Portrait of the Yongzheng Emperor in Court Dress from the Palace Museum in Beijing
Internal corruption and encroachment from industrially-dominant Europe and Japan eventually weakened Qing rule.  And extensive sponsorship of the arts and learning diminished.

Family Matters: Portraits from the Qing Court compels us to examine portraits of our own lives.  My Nanny, my mother’s mother, kept pictures of all her grandchildren.  She displayed them around the television, so she could see us every day.  The size of our photo corresponded with our place in her heart.  Favorites warranted 8” x 10”s or even 11” x 14”s.  And so on down the line with the least favored portrayed in only wallet-size pics.  If we displeased her, she laid our likeness facedown for a while.  It was a surprisingly simple system that helped each of us to understand our status within a large extended family… not unlike the Qing Court!

The Sackler Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums of Asian art, is located at 1050 Independence Avenue, SW, within a block of the Smithsonian Metro stop.  The Gallery is open daily, 10 am until 5:30 pm; admission is free.  Family Matters runs through Monday, January 16.

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