Musée No:819.005

Musée No:819.005

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Family Portrait

Artist: Unknown Chinese 

Date:17th Century

Who is this imposing Chinese family? What is the relationship between them? Were they as stern as they look? Which one was the mischievous uncle? Was there a doting grandfather amongst them? So many questions spring to mind. It may, in fact, be a ‘painted’ family tree, the ancestors being at the back. This 17th century portrait was originally painted on raw silk in China.

Klass Ruitenbeek, the curator of the “Faces of China” exhibition (Berlin 2018), explained that Chinese portrait painters depicted people from all walks of life, not necessarily as "Art" but “They were the portraits of parents and grandparents created to be worshipped through rituals, year after year on holidays. … Your family is part of your identity to a much greater degree than is the case here.”

We are unable to find out exactly who the subjects are but there some clues as to their status. A very simple version is that in Chinese society there were 9 ranks of officials, split into three colour groups - higher ranks red, mid ranks blue, lower ranks green. The gentleman in red clothes with the gold embroidered decorative elements shows off his high rank in the public service hierarchy. His actual rank is depicted by the embroidery on his chest – if those fabulous birds are cranes he is First Rank (for example an Emperor's Assistant), a wild goose means Fourth Rank. The blue gowned subject may have been a scholar. Forms of this ranking system persisted right up until the early 20th century. The hats also tell a story and if you look closely the belt fastenings are different too - more information there perhaps ?

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