A very rare large court painting of ladies playing chess  Yongzheng/Qianlong

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Lot 101Y
A very rare large court painting of ladies playing chess

Sold for £ 125,062 (US$ 153,805) inc. premium
A very rare large court painting of ladies playing chess
Ink and pigment on silk depicting two Court ladies playing weiqi within a bamboo grove, each of the ladies with finely arched eyebrows and delicately painted strands of hair under ornate headdresses, clad in elegant loose flowing robes with exquisitely detailed hems, the black and gilt weiqi boxes and covers decorated with dense foliate scroll, the top right with a large apocryphal seal 'Jing ji shan zhuang' seal, glazed and framed. Including the frame: 155cm (61in) wide x 99cm (39in) high.


  • 清雍正/乾隆 宮廷繪畫 仕女對弈圖 絹本設色 鏡框裝裱

    Provenance: a distinguished Italian private collection formed circa 1930s-1940s, and thence by descent

    The important Italian collector lived and worked in Shanghai between 1932 and 1936, as representative of his Italian company and in 1937, following the Sino-Japanese war, he was transferred to Dalian in Southern Manchuria. After a brief period spent in Italy in 1938, he returned to Shanghai where he lived between 1941 and 1946 and formed the vast majority of his collection of Chinese Art.



    The most notable feature of the present lot is the remarkable similarity of the faces of the ladies with those in Yongzheng's famous Screen of Twelve Beauties in the Palace Museum, Beijing. Compare the faces and hems of the ladies with those in the Twelve Beauties at Leisure Painted for Prince Yinzhen, the Future Yongzheng Emperor (hereafter abbreviated as Screen of Twelve Beauties), by anonymous court artists in the Late Kangxi period, illustrated in China: the Three Emperors 1662-1795, London, 2005, pp.258-259, no.173. The uncanny similarity of the faces painted in realistic style with neat outlines and generous colour, follows the custom of depicting ladies of the Court as women of elegance and natural grace, and strongly points to the courtly origin of this painting.

    The present lot closely follows the composition of another Imperial painted album, the Yue man qing you tu (月曼清遊圖) by Chen Mei 陳枚 (active in the early Qianlong reign), in the Palace Museum, Beijing. Painted in 1738, the album depicts the life of concubines over twelve months. One of the album leaves shows ladies playing chess in the exact same posture and position as the present lot, but within an interior. Therefore, one can see that the depiction of court ladies followed set models and precedents by court masters, which the present lot also follows.

    By examining further the Screen of Twelve Beauties, we may understand too the background of the present lot. While the Yongzheng emperor was still a prince, he commissioned the set of paintings of twelve beauties for the purpose of decorating a screen in the Deep Willows Reading Hall, a study within his private quarters at the Summer Palace. An Imperial garden to the northwest of Beijing, the Summer Palace, was presented to the young prince in 1709 by his father, the Kangxi emperor. However, an item found in the archives of the Imperial Household Department notes that in the eighth lunar month of 1732, ten years into Yongzheng's reign as emperor, the twelve paintings were removed from the screen and individually stored.

    Like the Screen of the Twelve Beauties, the present painting was also probably part of a larger screen or wall painting meant to decorate a palace. The apocryphal seal in the top right of the painting Jing ji shan zhuang (靜寄山莊), refers to an Imperial retreat in Panshan near Tianjin. Although the seal is apocryphal, it could refer to the original location where the present lot was from. Furthermore, like the Screen of the Twelve Beauties, the present lot was also at some point detached from a wall or screen and later cut into a more convenient and smaller section and re-mounted onto a different background. The format of the present lot is in keeping with 19th century practices of display; see for example J.Cahill, Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China, 2010.

    The artist of this painting as well as the Screen of Twelve Beauties portrayed the imagined beauties enjoying traditional Han Chinese leisure activities such as playing chess or weiqi, sampling tea, watching butterflies, and reading, as well as showing them in quiet reflection. This view reflects the late Imperial Chinese model of femininity, where women could engage in the traditionally male 'Four Arts of the Scholar' (playing the guqin, calligraphy, painting, and chess) whilst still being refined, delicate and attractively feminine. See S.McCausland and Lizhong Ling, Telling Images of China: Narrative and Figure Paintings 15th-20th Century from the Shanghai Museum, London, 2010, pp.65-7. The Manchu rulers, seeking to define themselves as the proper heirs to the throne of China, could not have missed the support of female intellectuality that many found even within the conservative Confucian tradition.

    It would be tempting to suggest that the artist of the present lot also showcased the most popular costumes and hairstyles of Qing court women. However, it interesting to note that these ladies are dressed in the styles of the flourishing Chinese cultural centre of the Yangzi delta region, at a time when there were repeated Imperial efforts to block the growing Manchu tendency to take on Han Chinese folkways. The Qianlong emperor, like his predecessors an author of repeated prohibitions against Manchu adoption of Han dress - wrote that its appearance in one rendition of women attending the emperor was not to be taken seriously, dismissing it as 'painterly playfulness' (丹青遊戲); see J.Larsen, 'Women of the Imperial Household: Views of the Emperor's Consorts and their Female Attendants' in Proceedings of the Denver Museum of Natural History, no.15, November 1, 1998, p.24. One can surmise that the present lot and paintings like it, such as the Screen of Twelve Beauties and Yue man qing you tu, were following artistic conventions of the court rather than depicting the actual leisure garments of palace women.

    Indeed, one can argue that the present lot encapsulates a fantasy. Wu Hung presents evidence associating these paintings of imagined court ladies in Han dress with the feminised and sexualised landscape of China, now intimately known by the Manchu conquerors; see Wu Hung, 'Beyond Stereotypes: The Twelve Beauties in Qing Court Art and the Dream of the Red Chamber' in Ming and Qing Women and Literature, Stanford, 1997, pp.306-322. These fictional female possessions of the emperor surrounded him as did the real women of his harem. These pictures of women gathered - whether made for the Kangxi, Yongzheng or Qianlong emperors - are for the private pleasures of a Manchu emperor as mates or as lovely paintings open to his gaze. The present lot does not show the formalised traditional garb of the Manchu conquerors worn in official portraits, but rather the forbidden, softer gowns of the Chinese who now submit to the Manchu emperor's rule.

    Despite elements of artistic fantasy, however, there are some aspects of the present lot and similar paintings, which act as visual and historical documents of unparalleled authenticity. The black lacquered and gilt-decorated weiqi boxes on the table for example, are typical of the mid 18th century; compare with a similar pair of black and gilt-lacquered weiqi boxes and covers, Qing dynasty, from the Qing Court Collection, illustrated in the Compendium of Collections of the Palace Museum: Jade, 9, Beijing, 2011, p.105, no.87.

    The present lot is a remarkable example of court painting, revealing not only artistic conventions of the court but also perceptions about the women of the court, documenting their refined demeanour and fine costumes, as well as the negotiation of cultural and ethnic boundaries between Han and Manchu, and finally the fantasies of Manchu emperors.
A very rare large court painting of ladies playing chess  Yongzheng/Qianlong
A very rare large court painting of ladies playing chess  Yongzheng/Qianlong
A very rare large court painting of ladies playing chess  Yongzheng/Qianlong
A very rare large court painting of ladies playing chess  Yongzheng/Qianlong
A very rare large court painting of ladies playing chess  Yongzheng/Qianlong
A very rare large court painting of ladies playing chess  Yongzheng/Qianlong
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