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An Imperial portrait of Consort Chunhui. Attributed to Giuseppe Castiglione, Qianlong period. Photo Bonhams

HONG KONG.- An Imperial portrait of Consort Chunhui smashed all expectations by selling for HK$39,860,000 at Bonhams Hong Kong 2012 Spring Auctions today, 27 May at the Island Ballroom of the Island Shangri-La Hotel.

Intense bidding both on the floor and on the telephone culminated in a Chinese bidder in the room taking home the prized portrait. Attributed to the Italian missionary-artist Giuseppe Castiglione, who served at the Qing Court under the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors, the half-length portrait of Consort Chunhui in court dress is executed in oil on gaoli paper and measures 54.5cm by 41.5cm.

Vividly painted in brilliant colours depicting the sitter in front profile from the waist up, her serene expression delicately rendered with full naturalistic attention, her face bright as if from natural sunlight, revealing a young yet dignified woman opulently adorned with feather hat, pearl earrings and a sumptuous orange-ground embroidered dragon robe, all against a mottled pale grey ground.

Consort Chunhui, whose birth date was unknown, was the daughter of Su Zhaonan, under the family name Su Jiashi of Manchu descent. She entered the Forbidden Palace during the Yongzheng Emperor's reign and became a concubine of the then Prince Hong Li, giving birth to his third son. When the prince ascended the throne as the Qianlong Emperor, she was granted the title of Imperial Concubine Chun. She was raised by rank to consort in the second year of Qianlong’s reign (1737), also bearing a prince and a princess, then to noble consort in the tenth year (1745). In the twenty-fifth year of his reign (1760), she was conferred the title of Imperial Noble Consort Chun, making her second only to the Empress in the Imperial harem. After her death later that year, she was posthumously honoured as Imperial Noble Consort Chunhui, and interred in the Yuling Mausoleum for concubines of the Qing emperors.

From its home in Beijing, the Imperial portrait of Consort Chunhui later surfaced in France and clear documentation showed how it made its way there. According to research, the ‘Imperial Portrait of Consort Chunhui’ was an acquisition from Commander Henry Nicolas Frey. As the French commander of the Eight-Nation Alliance, he was involved in waging aggressive war against China. The French headquarters were located at the ‘Hall of Imperial Longevity’ (Shouhuang Dian) in Jingshan Park within the Imperial Palace compound, and this hall was the place where portraits and relics of deceased emperors, empresses and consorts were stored. Like other invaders, Commander Frey and his troops did not let any looting opportunity slip—they pillaged a large number of Imperial treasures from the Hall of Imperial Longevity.

The painting was later sold by the family in a minor French auction.

Commenting on the results of the spectacular sale, Julian King, Head of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art in Hong Kong, said: “We are very pleased to sell a painting of such beauty and historical significance. Chunhui was a favoured consort of the Qianlong Emperor, who presided over Imperial China at the zenith of its power, at a time when a free interchange of science and art with the West had resulted in extraordinary artistic developments. All the other portraits of this type from the Qianlong era are preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing and the Guimet Museum, making this a truly exceptional collectible and piece of Chinese history for the buyer”.

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An Imperial portrait of Consort Chunhui. Attributed to Giuseppe Castiglione, Qianlong period. Photo Bonhams

Oil on gaoli paper, vividly painted in brilliant colours depicting the sitter in front profile from the waist up, her serene expression delicately rendered with full naturalistic attention, her face bright as if from natural sunlight, revealing a young yet dignified woman opulently adorned in the finest quality robes, wearing a black feather hat, pearl earrings and a sumptuous orange-ground embroidered dragon robe, all against a mottled pale grey ground. 54.5 by 41.5cm - Estimate upon request. Sold for HK$ 39.9 million

Provenance:: General Henri Nicolas Frey (1847- 1932), French Commander of the Eight-Nation alliance in China, 1900
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2 May 2005, lot 529

IllustratedNie Chongzhen, A Study of Portraits of the Qianlong Emperor and Consorts, National Art Museum of China, Beijing, 2005, Issue 9, pp.89-90.

Nie Chongzhen, An extremely rare Imperial portrait of Consort Chunhui and Oil Portrait Paintings in Qing Dynasty Palace, CANS, Taipei, February 2006, no.97, pp.36-40, and illustrated on the cover.

Nie Chongzhen, On Imperial Oil Portrait Paintings of Emperors and Consorts in Qing Dynasty Palace, Palace Museum Journal, Taipei, 2008, Issue 2, pp.50-59.

Liang Lian, A Discovery of Giuseppe Castiglione's Authentic Artworks, China Collections, Taipei, 2008, Issue 3, pp.70-75.

The current painting depicts Consort Chunhui, the daughter of Su Zhaonan. Born during the Kangxi reign, Lady Su entered the Forbidden City during the Yongzheng period and became a concubine of the Yongzheng emperor's fourth son, Hongli, the future Qianlong Emperor. On his acendancy in 1736, she became his official consort, granted the title of Imperial Concubine Chun. In 1737, she was promoted to the rank of Consort Chun, and in 1745 was elevated to the status of Noble Consort Chun. In 1760, she was conferred the title of Imperial Noble Consort Chun, making her second only to the Empress in the Imperial harem. After her death later that year, she was posthumously honoured as Imperial Noble Consort Chunhui, and interred in the Yuling Mausoleum for concubines of the Qing emperors.

Other than the current painting, there are two recorded depictions of her. The first is on the famous handscroll painted by Castiglione in 1736, the Inauguration Portrait of Qianlong: the Empress, and the Eleven Imperial Consorts(fig.1), which depicts half portraits of the Qianlong emperor, empress and eleven of his consorts, Chunhui appearing as the second consort. This handscroll is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, and was illustrated in Cecile and Michael Beurdeley, Castiglione, Peintre Jesuit a la Cour de Chine, Fribourg, 1971, pp. 98-101; and again in the National Palace Museum exhibition Emperor Chi'enlung's Grand Cultural Enterprise, Taipei, 2002, cat. 1-2. The second depiction is on a large Imperial portrait (fig.2), also from the collection of General Frey, which depicts her in formal robes on a throne, painted in shengrong style on silk, sold at Vente Poulain-Le Fur-Ricqles, France, 23 September 2001, lot 128, and illustrated, Cabinet Portier. 100 ans. 1909-2009 , p.151, no. 651, and now in a private collection.

Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) (Chinese name Lang Shining) was the longest serving of the missionary-artists at the Qing court, with a career spanning fifty-one years, during which he worked for the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors. Born in Milan, he entered the Society of Jesus in Genoa in 1707 at the age of nineteen. As a novitiate, he had time to develop his interest in painting, so that by the time he received orders from the Society to spread the faith in China in 1714, he was already proficient. Arriving in Macau in 1715, he quickly assimilated and learned Chinese language and customs, before being transferred to Beijing. Recommended by a fellow missionary Matteo Ripa (1682-1746) he was summoned for an audience with the Kangxi Emperor.

As Wang Yao-ting explains in New Visions at the Ch'ing Court: Giuseppe Castiglione and Western-Style Trends, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2007 pp.142-147, this audience 'inaugurated a new age in the history of Chinese court painting'. Of all the Western missionaries at Court, Castiglione was the most skilled at painting. He served as a senior court artist, playing a crucial role in introducing Western style trends on painting and fusing them with traditional Chinese techniques, formats and subject matter.

This fusion of Chinese and Western techniques is encapsulated in the famous painting in the Palace Museum, Beijing of the Qianlong Emperor Reviewing Troops, illustrated in Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, p.151, pl.29 (fig.1). The portrait of the Emperor on horseback is crisp and bold, remarkable for the lack of brush strokes in ink to define the outlines of the form. He and his horse are depicted bathed in brilliant light, with the overall rendering of colours fully reflecting the effects of light and shadow derived from Western notions of life painting. However, the landscape in the background is painted in traditional Chinese style.

Nowhere is Castiglione's opulent style of painting and extraordinary skill in painting meticulous figure subjects better conveyed than on his portrait of the Qianlong Emperor in formal Court dress, illustrated, ibid, p.150, pl.28 (fig.2). The fact that he was selected to paint a portrait of such high ritual importance demonstrates the standing he enjoyed at Court. His tombstone after his death in Beijing on 16 July 1766 was engraved with an inscription presented by the Emperor.

By comparing the portrait of Consort Chunhui on the aforementioned handscroll by Castiglione in the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Inauguration Portrait of Qianlong: the Empress, and the Eleven Imperial Consorts, in which she appears fourth in the sequence, with the current portrait, lot 200 (fig.2), it is clear that not only do both depict the same sitter, but also that they are clearly painted by the same hand. Both portraits are also closely related in style and composition with other portraits attributed to Castiglione, including: Portrait de L'Empereur Qianlong (fig.3) in the Guimet Museum (MG 26586), illustrated in Catalogue Les très Riches Heures de la Cour de Chine, Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, ....;Portrait of Empress Xiaoxian (fig.4), illustrated in Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, p. 206, pl.50; and Portrait of Imperial Concubine Wan (fig.5), illustrated, ibid, p.209, pl.53.

General Henri Nicolas Frey was born in Bonifacio in 1847, the son of a policeman who pursued a military career, rising quickly through the ranks to with distinguished service in Senegal, New Caledonia, Madagaskar, then colonies of France. It was the events in Beijing in 1900, however, which have resonated through history. As the French Commander of the Eight-Nation alliance in China in 1900, he was responsible for extensive looting after the Battle of Beijing and relief of the legations. The French headquarters were located at the Shouhuang Dian ('Hall of Imperial Longevity') in Jingshan Park, where portraits and treasured relics of previous emperors were stored. Numerous portraits and articles were looted as spoils of war by the French, headed by Frey, of which some were later donated to the Guimet Museum, and others sold at auction, including seals of the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors and several Imperial portraits, including the current lot. The famous painting Kazakhs presenting horses to the Qianlong Emperor, painted in 1757 by Castiglione, and illustrated in Catalogue Les très Riches Heures de la Cour de Chine, Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, pp.166-167, cat. no. 78 (fig.1) was given to the Guimet Museum (MG 17033) by General Frey on 20 July 1925, as recorded in a decree from the Guimet Museum archives (fig.2). The archives also preserve a handwritten letter (fig.3) by General Frey to the director of the Guimet Museum 12 March 1914, in which he discusses four paintings he was considering donating to the museum, including a scroll attributed to Castiglione, a portrait of an empress or Imperial concubine, another portrait of a concubine that may have deteriorated during transport, and a fourth painting in poor condition.

Bonhams. 27 May 2012 2 p.m. Hong KongAn Imperial portrait of Consort Chunhui