Ancestral portraits generally occur in pairs, depicting an ancestral married couple, formally seated, and richly dressed in robes appropriate to their rank in the hierarchy of traditional Chinese society. Hence these figures are appropriately dressed in elaborate clothing and jewels to show the importance they held when they were alive This work clearly shows a husband and wife, confirmed by their rank badges. The badges looks to portray the silver pheasant ('baixian'), which is the insignia of a 5th rank civil official (during the Qing period, the wife was authorised to wear the same insignia as her husband). However the bird's tail feathers also has similarities to the paradise flycatcher, the insignia of a 9th rank official. Hence this is an example of how certain liberties were taken when painting such portraits.
Set against a plain background, as was common in this type of portraiture, both sit on round chairs - he sits on an elaborate tiger skin, symbolising his wealth and power, she on a floral textile. Attached to the wife's clothing is a jade 'ruyi' charm which hangs towards the bottom of her garment, and decorative ornaments hang from her head dress. As was often the case, the wife's feet are concealed, but the husband's are shown along with the large tiger's claws. The faces of this pair are well modelled, and they would appear to be earlier than the many 19th century decorative couples common in the market. Such paintings were usually produced by anonymous painters. At times multiple artists who specialised in the painting of special areas such as fur or eyes etc were employed on a painting. Thus, unlike literati paintings, these paintings were for veneration of ancestors in the home and were used for worshipping the dead who in turn, it was believed, could provide good fortune in the lives of those living.
Asian Art Department, AGNSW, June 2007.
Place where the work was made
Qing dynasty 1644 - 1911 → China
circa 18th century
colour on silk
a - husband; 110 x 65.5 cm
b - wife; 110 x 65.5 cm
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Gift of Allan Brittain 2007
Where the work was made
Shown in 1 exhibition
Conversations through the Asian collections, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 25 Oct 2014–28 Feb 2016