Made for Trade - Made in China

Paula Swart

The background of the subject matter for this doctoral thesis and publication is the development of trade relations between European countries and China, which were initiated in the 16th century. A key event in this development, from a Dutch perspective, was the embassy sent by the Dutch East India Company to the court of the Emperor of China of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), established by the Manchus. Johan Nieuhof's account of the First East India Company Embassy, 1655-57 (published in 1665 in Amsterdam) narrates the first-hand experience of travelling through China from Canton to the court in Beijing. 

Much like a lonely planet guide book, it included detailed descriptions of cities, government, science, customs, crafts, religion, buildings, costumes, etc. This important account, translated into French, Latin, and English was accompanied by 150 illustrations, which were to become one of the inspirations for chinoiserie, especially popular in the 18th century.

Rosalien van der Poel has provided us with the first comprehensive study and scholarly analysis of the virtually unknown significant holdings in 16 Dutch public collections of Chinese export paintings acquired from the late 18th to mid-19th century. The combined holdings number well over four thousand pieces, of which the majority are held in the collection of the National Museum of World Cultures in Leiden. These Chinese export paintings, a term introduced in 1950, including the whole range from enamel paintings, reverse glass paintings, to gouaches, water colours and oil paintings, were originally created in workshops located in Southern China (Canton, Hong Kong and Macao) to be taken home as mementos by sailors and merchants. Often executed in bright and vivid colours, these paintings functioned as documentary witnesses to the exotic culture and sights, only partially glimpsed and experienced by Westerners during the China trade. Not surprisingly then it is largely in ethnographic and maritime museums that these paintings found a final home, after initially being appreciated and enjoyed by the first owners and their relatives. Due to their fragile quality, these paintings are often preserved in storage facilities with limited chance for curatorial attention and selection for display.

While a significant amount of research has been done on the subject, and export paintings have been the focus of various exhibitions and publications, Van der Poel has been compelled to formulate new perspectives. For example, to look at the historical export painting market as a creative industry, which naturally grew as a side branch out of commerce, the trade in tea, porcelain and silk. The resulting art works, tangible elements of a visual economy, in turn became commodities. In order to draw conclusions about the appreciation of the extensive Chinese export paintings in Dutch public collections, her multidisciplinary research follows the entire trajectory of this specific transcultural painting genre, from the production two centuries ago to the current position. Noticing a gap in existing scholarship, van der Poel sees these paintings as meaningful information carriers of an unknown culture that derive their legitimacy from the historical China trade.  She examines the archival and documentary significance by looking in turn at the commodity/export, historic, artistic, and material value aspects of the various genres, and argues that the export paintings accrue different values throughout their lifespan moving from the Chinese trade value system to the Western trade value system and as identity marker for former China-goers. As an interesting exercise, one could write a cultural biography of a painting, which would include looking at its representational, historical-documentary, identity-enhancing, symbolic and/or merchandising function. During the social life of a painting, they fulfilled various social functions from commemorative and identity reinforcement, and accrued value as representations, but also accrued value through the social process of accumulation, possession, circulation and exchange.

She explores in depth such questions as: Are those integrated, transcultural paintings in Dutch collections to be considered as commodities or as art objects, or are both qualifications appropriate? While in the West, these export paintings are appreciated as art, in the country of origin, China, these paintings, specifically ‘made for trade’, would not have been considered as art in the 18th and early 19th century and were not collected. The concept of art itself was only introduced via Japan in the late 19th century. Traditionally calligraphy (书法) and painting (画), divided into two schools, the literati and court painters, were appreciated as artistic expressions. The gongbi (工筆) style of painting used highly detailed brushstrokes, often remarkably coloured, to depict figural or narrative subjects. Practised by artists working for the royal court or in independent workshops, it is this style that was mainly used in creating the export paintings.

The publication includes a useful overview by technique and by subject matter represented in the various Dutch collections. Knowing the Dutch love of flowers, it is perhaps not surprising that of the wide variety of sub genres, Chinese flora and fauna forms the largest group, scenes of daily life and figure painting takes second place, followed by paintings illustrating the production process of silk, porcelain, tea and rice, and maritime subjects making up respectively third and fourth place.

The oil paintings on canvas form a special group of transcultural painting genre and include harbour views of Macao, Whampoa and the Canton waterfront with the range of factories, and a set of seven extremely rare winter landscapes of Tartary, which are a prime example of hybridization with rich cultural dimensions. Both groups have solid provenance and were collected by Jean Theodore Royer (1737–1807) a lawyer, amateur scholar and collector of Chinese objects in The Hague.

In the 19th century this genre of winter landscapes was appreciated in Holland, but that changed over time. Perceived as having a hybrid character led to them being identified as inferior and not as objets d’art, as a result they have been neglected and in need of restoration.

One of the overall goals of van der Poel’s thesis and publication has been to bring awareness to the collections of the historically valuable 18th- and 19th-century Chinese export paintings, which in her opinion deserve to be made accessible (not frozen) and safeguarded for future generations. For a large part of their existence, the paintings belonging to this genre have primarily been seen as export articles without intrinsic artistic value, which explains why this genre has, for a long time, not received the attention it deserves. Van der Poel argues they have an historic, an artistic, and a material value, which, as a result of their representative and social functions, over time formed an artistic phenomenon in its own right, and a shared cultural visual repertoire with its own (Eurasian) character.

The majority of export paintings are held in public and private collections in the United States and Europe. A more recent trend is the increased demand in China itself, where many newly established museums and trade museums can be found. Specifically, in Guangzhou (formerly romanized as Canton), the export paintings are appreciated as tangible evidence of the early cooperation with overseas trading economies.