Ancestor Portrait

1700-1750

Object

Artist

Artist not known

Country

  • China

Object Info

This object may or may not be on view currently.

Artist not known, China 1700-1750, Qing dynasty H: 76 in, W: 41 in Gift in memory of William W. and Mary C. Sinclaire from William Sinclaire, Mary Carroll Sinclaire Morris and Helen Sinclaire Blythe, 2009.751 Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Medium

  • paint
  • paper

About

About the Artist

Family members commissioned most ancestor portraits. They were painted in workshops as the result of collaboration among several artists, few of whom ever signed their names. Workshop organization was highly specialized, and tasks were divided according to skill. The newest, least-skilled artisans might paint only the ancestor’s hat or shoes, while master artists painted faces. Faces were the most important part of the portrait, because they needed to be realistic and individualized; in contrast, the body and its clothing were used to describe social status and did not need to be personalized.

To simplify production, some artists used stencils to draw the bodies and the chairs. Other artists used grids to create the proper proportions for bodies. They could draw a grid in charcoal, which would be erased when painting.

Painting faces required the most skill—in painting just the eyes and eyebrow hairs, artists might use brushes of six different sizes. Painting accurate faces was important, which created a problem if the subject of the portrait was already dead. The artist might bring a sketchbook of faces for clients to look over. The family would then select features based on the sketches—for example, “ears like those on sketch 2 and a nose like that on sketch 5.” Other times, artists would study the features of living relatives and draw the ancestor portrait based on common features. If necessary, the artist would view the corpse—but only if the deceased was male, since ideas about virtue declared that women should not be seen by outsiders.

What Inspired It

Family members commissioned ancestor portraits to commemorate deceased relatives. These paintings were treated with the greatest respect. On certain holidays, families would honor their ancestors by bowing before the portraits and placing food in front of them. If properly cared for, ancestors contributed to wealth and good fortune for their descendants. If ignored, ancestors could turn into nasty ghosts who would bring bad luck.

Ancestor portraits have a long history in China and stems from filial piety. This one dates from the early part of the Qing [CHING] dynasty (1644–1911), the last imperial dynasty. Ancestor portraits were usually painted in pairs, so a matching portrait of this man’s wife may exist somewhere.

Ancestors were usually shown in their best dress, which gives us a way to judge the rank of a subject even if we don’t know his or her identity. The most formal costume in the Qing wardrobe was called chaofu, “court dress.” Chao fu [chow FOO]did not refer to a single garment but to an entire outfit, the way a “tuxedo” consists of a shirt, pants, jacket, tie, and cummerbund. Chao fu required a court hat, robe, necklace, and belt, all with prescribed decorations and symbols.

Based on the style of his formal robe, this man was probably an official of the highest rank. However, sometimes people exaggerated an ancestor’s status. Also, if a man attained a higher status than his ancestors had, he could posthumously apply that ranking to his father and grandfather. He might even commission new portraits to show these ancestors with a higher rank.

Court Hat
Court Hat

Hats were an integral part of Chinese dress and were worn on all occasions. Made of a bamboo shell and covered with white silk, this type of court hat was worn during the summer. The top of the hat is covered with a red silk tassel made of unspun silk floss.

Hat Finial
Hat Finial

The finial, or ornament at the top, marks this as a court hat and indicates the wearer’s high rank. Officials of the first rank were entitled to wear a ruby or other red stone finial, with a pearl set beneath it, as this ancestor appears to wear.

Court Robe
Court Robe

This style of robe is the most formal garment worn in the Qing dynasty. This is a summer robe, probably made of lightweight satin or silk gauze; winter robes had fur linings visible at the cuffs and collar.

Sleeves
Sleeves

During Qing dynasty times, the ruling Manchu, who came from the northeast to conquer the previous Ming dynasty rulers, changed the style of robes to reflect their own customs and assert their authority. The Manchu valued horseback riding, hunting and military skills. They made the sleeves narrower and added a cuff shaped like a horse’s hoof. This may have been done to make it easier for using the arms in hunting.

Dragon
Dragon

The design of the dragon curling over the shoulder identifies this court robe as dating from the early Qing dynasty, probably from the late 1600s or early 1700s. On later robes, the dragon is shown full-on rather than in profile. Dragons were believed to bring rain—important because China was an agricultural society. They therefore symbolized both fertility and masculine vitality. Note that this dragon has four claws on each foot. Princes, noblemen, and high-ranking officials were allowed to wear robes with four-clawed dragons, but only the emperor, his sons, and certain very high-ranking princes and officials were permitted to wear dragons with five claws

Collar
Collar

The collar, an important component of the court robe, may have originated from a hood the Manchu wore when riding. The style of the collar makes a man’s shoulders look broader and more powerful.

Court Belt
Court Belt

Belts were especially useful because garments had no pockets. External pockets and handkerchiefs could be attached to the belt. The two long narrow white objects hanging from the belt are ceremonial handkerchiefs. Like every other part of the garment, belts were status symbols. The color and ornamentation on the belt was strictly regulated according to rank.

Boots
Boots

Boots like these symbolized that a man never walked anywhere because he had a horse to ride. The boots had stiff white soles that originally allowed a Manchu rider to stand up in the stirrups. Such boots were usually made of black satin with soles of leather and felted paper, and cost the same as a servant’s wages for a whole year!

Teaching Resources

Lark Masons speaks about ancestor portraits and their significance in Chinese culture.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.