The fascinating history of Chinese ancestor paintings
The practice of honouring and worshiping ancestors has been an important part of Chinese culture for centuries. The Chinese believe that a relationship continues between the deceased and the living and that in properly honouring their memory in family rituals, the power and spirit of their ancestors can bring them health, prosperity, long life and fertility. Each generation honours the previous ones, with the power of the ancestors being passed on to the living.
Sons would have a duty to care for the spirits of their deceased ancestors, and as part of private ceremonies in the home they would place food offerings and burn incense in front of large portraits of their forbears. These portraits are usually referred to as ‘ancestor paintings’ and were painted on large scrolls of silk on paper or canvas by artists commissioned to closely capture the features of the deceased. The power of the living person was believed to continue, residing in their portrait after they died.
Ancestor portraits were commonly used for family rituals during the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) and continued into the later Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912) and beyond. They were used at all levels of society but particularly amongst the ruling military and scholarly classes. Most paintings would be of an individual, but couples or even several generations were sometimes painted together. The subjects were almost always shown facing front on, and near life-size. They would be depicted dressed in their finest official robes, seated in an elaborate chair with their feet on a footstool. Both male and females were painted, with the slight differences in pose between the two. Women’s’ feet were considered highly erotic and as such were always hidden behind long robes. Likewise, their hands were also usually hidden under their sleeves. Both men and women would be shown wearing necklaces and other jewellery and ornaments along with ornate headdresses in many cases.
Above: Pair of Chinese ancestor paintings, late 19th century. Recently sold at Christies
Most of the older ancestor paintings that have survived are of members of the imperial court during the Qing dynasty, along with the civil and military elite who ruled China until the revolution in 1911. These are important artefacts in revealing much about the highly structured society of China during this period. The ornate costumes that the subjects wore was effectively a code to show their rank and status, with both the colour of their robes and the embroidered square silk badges on the front accurately indicating their level within court or the military. Bright ‘imperial’ yellow robes were reserved for the emperor alone, with different shades of yellow for the crowned prince and other princes. Lower ranking imperial family members would wear blue, with red and other colours used for lower ranking officials.
The square rank badges, also referred to as ‘Mandarin squares’ first appeared in the early Ming dynasty, used to indicate the rank both of higher-level military personnel and civil officials. Their use continued right up until the fall of the Qing dynasty and they are seen on the robes of most of the subjects shown in ancestor paintings, including our own reproduction versions. The badges showed the bird or animal associated with the wearer’s rank. Birds including cranes, peacocks, pheasants and geese were used for civil badges, while the badges of high-ranking generals and other military showed animals. The highest ranking of these depicted a Qilin – a mythical dragon-like beast - with lions, tigers, leopards, rhinoceroses and seahorses used for lower ranks.
While the costumes and symbols shown in the paintings provided a structured code to the wearer’s position in society, the most important part of each painting was the face. Every ancestor was painted with a similar expression, essentially detached, calm and sombre to suggest an otherworldly presence. But beyond that it was extremely important for the artist to capture the subject’s features as accurately as possible if the portrait was to function effectively as a ritual object. It was believed that if the portrait was not a good likeness, with even one small mistake, then any prayers and offerings meant for the ancestor could be misdirected to someone else, resulting in tragedy for the family.
This posed a big problem for the artists that produced the paintings. As the portraits were usually produced posthumously, it was very difficult to get an accurate depiction of the subject. Lifetime portraits might have been available as a guide for royalty, but in many cases the artist would have to make do with a family member who closely resembled the deceased or perhaps be permitted a quick look at the corpse before burial. In many cases the artists would show books to the relatives, with various alternatives for eyes, noses and other facial features. In this way they could build up an accurate picture of the deceased, much like the identikit images used by modern day police artists.
The advent of photography in the nineteenth century meant that the practice of painting ancestor portraits began to decline. Accurate portraits of people would be captured on camera during their lifetimes, which meant that the large scroll paintings done posthumously were no longer needed. However ancestor worship continues to be an important part of Chinese culture today, and photographic portraits are still a central part of this tradition.
Original ancestor portraits are now quite rare and highly sought after. They regularly appear at auction with Sothebys and Christies and will sell for thousands of pounds. While we at Shimu are not lucky enough to own any originals we do sell reproduction ancestor portraits in various sizes. They offer a reminder of the tradition and history associated with Chinese ancestor worship and are a great way to add interest to a wall, hung over a sideboard or, as would be traditional, a Chinese altar table. Our collection is constantly changing but you’ll find our most recent selection online with our other oriental wall art.
Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits - Jan Stuart, Evelyn Sakakida Rawski, Freer Gallery of Art, 2001