I am reading Kristina Kleutghen’s fascinating new book Imperial Illusions: Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in the Qing Palaces. It analyses the surviving illusionist paintings which enjoyed a vogue at the Chinese imperial court in the eighteenth century, in particular those in the private quarters of the Qianlong emperor in the Forbidden City.
As part of that analysis Kleutghen also discusses the genre of ‘beautiful women paintings’ (meiren hua), which until recently have received scant scholarly attention. It is now becoming clear that what used to be regarded as generic and bland images of Chinese ‘gentlewomen’ are actually about desire and longing.
These ‘beautiful women’ are shown in private spaces such as gardens or the inner rooms of mansions. In a society where respectable women were kept from public view, this already made these images somewhat suggestive. In addition, the pictures contain various hints that the women are in fact waiting for or are about to welcome their lovers. They may be high-class courtesans or concubines, objects of desire surrounded by other luxury objects.
This imagery was also used in Chinese paintings made specifically for export to the west. In the mirror painting at Shugborough Hall, for instance, the lady is looking tenderly at a pair of cooing doves, who are presumably mirroring her own thoughts and feelings. The room contains two barrel-shaped ceramic seats, suggesting that she is expecting someone, or hoping that someone will visit. She stands next to a table poised to write something – perhaps a letter to her lover, or a love poem.
When seen in this light, another mirror painting, from the Hoare collection at Stourhead, also seems to be about love and longing. On the left a couple is seated on a bench, closely entwined, reading a book together – perhaps a love story? The lady on the right, by contrast, sits on her own, with only a servant girl for company, her head forlornly resting in her hand, again gazing at a pair of doves who seem to mock her loneliness.
The European buyers of these pictures probably understood very little of all that and likely regarded these scenes as just innocuous Chinese genre paintings. But now this new scholarship is allowing us to understand some of the meanings hidden almost in plain sight within these pictures.