Chinese “Ancestral portraits”
Portraiture of the senior family members, made while they were alive or based on descriptions and imaginations, constituted an important part of classic Chinese figure paintings.
The Chinese Traditional Culture Museum in Beijing unveiled an Ancestral Worship exhibition on the 1st of January to showcase selected ancestral portraits in the collection of the Chinese National Academy of Arts.
The show surveys the tradition from both an artistic aspect and as a custom that embodied cultural significance to ancient Chinese — paying respect to those who passed away, remembering their high morality, and by which educating the young to uphold their principles.
Ancestral portraits or Ancestors’ paintings were painted on paper or silk specifically for use in ancestor worship. They almost always depicted their subjects in a nearly live-size frontal pose, most often seated on some throne with tiger skin, and a beautiful carpet at their feet. It was believed the power of the living person resided in their portrait after death. Generally, they wore formal gowns with insignia that proclaimed their rank and status.
The only differences are gender-related. Woman´s feet, considered a most erotic part of the female body, were always hidden, and more often than not, the woman´s hands with her long fingernails were hidden as well. Although the costume worn by the ancestor could indicate court status and social position, the essential part of the portrait was the face. All ancestors were painted virtually the same expression – a symbolically calm and detached look – to suggest a sort of objective, otherworldly status.
Chinese ancestor portraits were used during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Before the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, ancestor paintings were rarely available for purchase or exhibited publicly. Most remained in the hands of family members, and the authenticity and exactness of photography later replaced the old tradition. Today, these paintings are recognized as a unique Chinese art form, highly sought after by collectors.