50s and 60s Chinese Ancestor Paintings — Stephan clues us in

Palm Springs Stephan responded to the call for info on my recent post on Chinese artwork that seemed so popular in room interiors of the day. This was so interesting, it seemed like it should be a full post in its own right. I want one of these SO MUCH! Stephan writes:

“On the Chinese paintings ….

“They are not actually kings, at least not the man in the illustration shown. Chinese emperors (“emperor” being the more correct title) were always depicted wearing bright yellow, a color usually reserved for imperial use. And the headgear of an emperor was usually somewhat more elaborate. The man depicted in this painting is probably an aristocrat or very wealthy person, most likely also a scholar (scholars being must revered in imperial China). An expert on Chinese costume could tell you exactly what his social position was based on his gown and headgear. And his name and titles are probably inscribed along one border of the portrait, though they are not visible in the illustration.

“The portaits were almost always done as a male-female, husband-first wife pair. The couple might also be shown together in a single painting, sometimes with their male children standing behind them. Keeping portraits of one’s ancestors was an ancient Chinese tradition, and portraits of this type are known dating back over 1000 years. But by the late nineteenth century, paintings were replaced by photographic portraits, so that there are far fewer paintings from after about 1880-1890.

“The paintings became more commonly available in the west after WWII and Mao Tse Tung’s communist takeover of what was then called “mainland” China. Maoists attempted to end ancestor veneration, especially during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, and portraits of this type were seized and exported for sale. But in recent years, Chinese culture has begun to re-embrace its own history, and these paintings have become ever more pricey as the Chinese attempt to re-acquire them. I suspect if you found an original today, even one from the very early 20th century, you could expect to pay in the thousands or tens of thousands for it. For an emperor wearing imperial yellow and with his names and titles inscribed, expect to mortgage the house to buy it.

“But you can probably find prints if you look for them. And you can also buy modern reproductions of fairly good quality directly from China. See http://www.orient-curio.com/crafts/painting/pt1.htm. [update: link now broken…?] There is also a seller on Ebay that has a large number of these reproduction paintings for sale. But don’t be fooled: despite any seller’s description to the contrary, these items are without doubt newly-made to look old, and not 100% authentic, so “buyer beware”!

On a personal note, I do remember that my parents had wallpaper in the dining room that was meant to recreate an Asian landscape painting. And sculptures of cranes and herons, both important symbols in Chinese iconography, were popular as well, though that was the mid 1960s rather than the 1950s.”

Many thanks again, Stephan. Note, the paintings above are from the site Stephan points us to.


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  1. Femme1 says

    Thank you, Stephan, for all the info about these paintings. How interesting that 50s/60s decorating was tied into the Chinese Cultural Revolution! When Pam first posted the question about these, I thought perhaps there had been a popular museum exhibition (similar to the King Tut exhibit in the 80s) that had sparked an interesting decorative fad. It would be interesting to see if there were articles in decorating mags of the time about these. (Hm… a possible dissertation subject?)

  2. 50sPam says

    Great comment Femme 1. One of the really fascinating things about doing this blog, is growing to understand how every single element of humankind’s history sort of coalesced into … 50s decorating, too! The swirling impacts of all things economic, social, political, demographic, in the arts, etc. — all manifest in home decor, ultimately, it seems. And postwar America was a maelstrom of converging influences, it was such an interesting time.

  3. Femme1 says

    I happened to run across one of these paintings recently in a small antique store in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. I was sorely tempted to buy it, but they were asking over $600 for it, so I passed it by.

  4. Dave says

    I purchased two Male/Female very large paintings like these for close to $800 about 4 years ago. They are in beautiful dark brown wood frames. My question is that I think they are hand painted on silk? Would this have been common? The male is in yellow gold and the female in red and they are over five feet tall.

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